Tag Archives: Digital Humanities

Member of the Week: LaDale Winling

Ladale WinlingLaDale Winling

Associate Professor, Department of History

Virginia Tech

@lwinling

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

I am currently researching real estate and segregation in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. From this milieu, in the midst of the Great Migration and in wake of the 1919 race riot, emerged new real estate practices, new public policy such as HOLC’s redlining, and a new electoral viability of African Americans with the election of Congressmen such as Oscar DePriest, Arthur Mitchell, and William Dawson. My collaborative work with the Mapping Inequality team, the inspiring scholarship by Margaret Garb, David Freund, and Carl Nightingale, and the time I spent in Chicago in graduate school led me to this topic. Chicago is a well-studied city but I think there are new stories to be told about the city, its institutions, and its people.

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

I teach digital history and public history at Tech, and I am contributing to a minor called Data in Social Context. This involves teaching math and science types to bring humanistic values to their use and understanding of data, and teaching humanists how to work with data tools. It is important to keep building skills into history programs, and to make sure historians can use a wide array of tools and resources in our scholarship.  As part of this effort, I am currently teaching an undergrad class in which students will choose a Congressional district and conduct research on the demographics and geography, the electoral history, current campaign coverage, and current polling, then make an election forecast just before midterm election in November. We’ll learn about the history of the U.S. census and the history of public opinion polling along the way, as well as how to read polls critically.  It brings together my interests in political history, spatial history, and bringing historical context to current events.

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

A team at the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab is about to launch the first phase of a new history of Congressional elections in early October as part of the American Panorama digital atlas. By the time it’s all out, we’ll have have created an interactive mapping tool like you see for recent elections on major sites like the New York Times, as well as a large dataset of every House and Senate election result for researchers. Our goal is to contribute to work on grassroots political history by connecting Congress and the American voting public more directly in our political history.

In terms of books, I’m excited to see work in progress on racial capitalism by Destin Jenkins and Nathan Connolly, which will make important revisions in the way we think about the history of capitalism. I just met Nikole Hannah-Jones and am going to find it hard to wait for her book on segregation in education. As for recent books, I’m also looking forward to reading Timothy Lombardo’s new book on Frank Rizzo, Blue Collar Conservatism, and to pick up Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City.

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

I have one fundamental piece of advice: study a topic that you love, and that makes your heart sing, but keep a pragmatic consideration about developing transferable skills and opportunities to gain experience in non-academic venues. Learn GIS, as I did in graduate school, or get experience in writing and administering grants, or hone your prose in writing for public audiences, or work on an exhibit at a local museum, and most of all, learn how to pitch yourself. The academic job market is a difficult one, and while a tenure-track job is a great option, it is not the be-all and end-all of higher education or graduate school. There are many different ways to make a rewarding living and to use your knowledge to help improve humanity.

What are you most excited about for UHA 2018?

I am most excited about sitting in on some sessions at UHA. I have loved UHA from the beginning of grad school (my first conference was Milwaukee 2004) because I get so much energy and inspiration from learning about the new work people are doing and from catching up with old friends. It has been quite rewarding, through planning, to help move the conference and, potentially, the field in new directions. Now I’m just looking forward to being part of that fundamental process of sharing ideas, of hearing and responding to new research in progress.

Digital Summer School: Harlem Education History Project

All good things must come to an end, and this is especially true of summer school. Whether talking about the 1980s Mark Harmon feature or the classroom, digital and analog, it’s come time to shutter our doors for a couple weeks as The Metropole takes some time off. We’ll re-open after Labor Day with a month dedicated to our grad student blog contest, “Striking Gold.” However, before we depart, we have one more lesson: this time from one of the most famous black enclaves in America, the Harlem Education History Project (hit them up on “the twitter” at @EduHarlem).

From curating online exhibitions to enlisting youth historians to highlighting the work of local Harlem educational institutions and more, the project organizers, Teacher’s College Professor Ansley Erickson tells us, hope to convey “the multiplicity and importance of stories about education in Harlem schools across the twentieth century, including in periods in which this complexity is often reduced to labels of ‘crisis’ or ‘failure.'”

Why did you establish the Harlem Education History Project and who do you see as its audience?

My colleague Ernest Morrell and I started talking about what is now the Harlem Education History Project in the fall of 2012. We shared an interest in generating new scholarship on the history of education in Harlem – for Ernest, as a way to ensure that ongoing work of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, which he then headed, was historically informed; and, for both of us, as a way to address the surprising lack of scholarly attention to education in this storied black urban community. We also wanted to bring the robust intersectional and critical scholarship in recent African American history to bear on this important educational case. Both of us were motivated, as well, by the sense that much contemporary education discourse about city schools, about schooling in black communities, is markedly ahistorical, trading in reductive notions of failure that obscure a reality of continued, creative, and varied struggles to secure quality education in an African American tradition.

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Harlem mass meeting re Hillburn [case] raised enough to buy school books, between 1945 and 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
As we imagined embarking on this new scholarly enterprise, we shared commitments about how we wanted the work to develop. We sought a multi-generational community of knowledge production, by which we meant a space that included not only scholars at different career stages (who joined us as contributors to an edited volume that is now completed and under review at a university press), graduate students at Teachers College and in the field, and local high school students (who we connect to through an after-school program called Youth Historians in Harlem, initiated by graduate student Barry Goldenberg and sustained with our support). It became clear that digital work would be central to these multigenerational connections. We first conceptualized the digital iteration of the project as a meeting place and a site for collaboration and sharing for those connected to the project.[1]

We were also interested in how working digitally could allow us to work in public in ways that traditional publishing structures and timelines and traditional archive spaces prevented. This interest was motivated in part by the broad values of access and engagement that run through many public digital humanities efforts, but it was informed as well by the particular institutional and community context in which we were working. Urban historians know well the troubled history of Columbia in relation to Harlem, the most striking moment being the 1968 attempt by the university to build a private gymnasium in the public Morningside Park; questions about appropriation of land and colonial dynamics in relationship to the surrounding community continue in many ways today, including around the university’s expansion into a new area of West Harlem. In this context, committing university resources to new scholarship on Harlem was at once deeply necessary and very fraught. We hoped that working in public, emphasizing access not only to completed scholarship (as in the edited volume, which will be fully accessible online) but to the materials of our inquiry and our work in progress, would be one small part of trying to do this work well. Others, including various kinds of collaboration with community members, are discussed below.

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Three African American boys playing checkers in summer playschool, Harlem, New York, N.Y, between 1940 and 1960, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As the project has developed – with our Omeka-based site now presenting a few collections of digitized primary source material, clips and complete oral histories, and digital exhibits – we’ve seen ways in which the site has supported the multigenerational engagement we were hoping for. A few chapters in our forthcoming edited volume cite oral history interviews conducted by students in my classes and housed on the site. A digital exhibit (in the pipeline, not yet published) created by a high school student links poetry as social critique across three generations: in the works of the Harlem Renaissance, in the writing of alumni from her school (as published in school yearbooks on our site), and in her own poetry. All of these connections are possible without a digital collection – but they have been facilitated by it.

The site’s audience has grown beyond those already connected to the project in two ways. First, our digital exhibits seem to draw the most traffic. This is in part via digital-only outreach, but also through the times they have been resources for authors’ and others’ presentations in various workshops, teacher professional development sessions, and the like. And second, as we’ve focused more intensively on “featured schools,” we’ve seen more use of the site by members of specific school communities, from people interested in accessing the material we’re sharing (much of it digitized at community members’ request) that is part of their own histories.

How did the Harlem Education History Project come into being? What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome to make it a reality?

This project has grown slowly, organically, based on relationships and based on pursuing new opportunities as they arose. And it is still in progress in every respect. In addition to the ideas and partnerships mentioned above, three key developments have made this work possible in our context.

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African American woman showing a sign for an outdoor rally to a boy in Harlem, New York; “Today is NAACP Day” is on a marquee near them, photography by Ed Bagwell, 1961, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

First, I was able to build the Harlem Education History Project into my teaching work. Doing so provided a structured space to explore this history and the challenges and opportunities of working digitally. I teach two courses that have a topical focus on the history of education in Harlem with different methodological angles – one on oral history, one on archival sources. (Starting in 2016, these classes became connected to the Harlem Semester initative at Barnard College, which cultivates a set of community-engaged and Harlem-focused classes). Students’ final projects in these classes take the form of digital exhibits. From this pool of student work, my graduate fellows and I invite some students to refine their exhibits and move them through our peer review and publication process. (We would welcome exhibits proposed and created by scholars elsewhere, as well).

Second, the idea of “featured schools” gave us a scale at which to work that made many things – from collaboration to cultivating audience – more possible. In 2013 we started working with current and alumni community members at Harlem’s Wadleigh school building (it has been at various times a high school, junior high school, and secondary school, and now houses three schools.) Our work started with oral history interviewing, expanded to digitization of material of value to the school community – particularly, the rich sources that are the schools’ yearbooks. Increasingly, via a continuing set of meetings and conversations over the last year, this partnership is evolving toward more collaboratively-constructed oral history.

Third, graduate student leadership has been crucial in this work. Teachers College’s doctoral fellowships require a research assistantship commitment, and I have asked my students to focus their work on this project. Esther Cyna has been a fellow on the project for three years, and she has taken the lead in several ways – including researching, designing, and implementing our digital peer review process for digital exhibits. Cyna has also presented on our work at OAH, AHA, and other conferences. Rachel Klepper and Cyna have been key facilitators in our growing collaboration with Wadleigh community members as well, especially this year when I was away on leave and unable to attend community meetings and workshops in person. Youth Historians has been led over the past year by Matthew Kautz, Yanella Blanco, and Rhonesha Blache, whose work was funded by institutional fellowships that link TC students to work with local schools and students.

It’s crucial also to recognize obstacles we did not have to overcome. From this project’s inception, we’ve benefited from a stable, high-quality, sustainability-focused partnership with the digital humanities team at Columbia Libraries from this project’s inception. Rebecca Kennison, Barbara Rockenbach, Mark Newton, Alex Gil, and many others have been willing to talk about our ideas, the tools that exist (and don’t exist) to realize them, and in some cases to ask their skilled developers to help modify these when we needed. They have also made the quotidian issues of working online – in terms of updates, security, and more – things that we did not have to worry about. Having this support available to us without external fundraising has been crucial in beginning the work. Thai Jones and colleagues at the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library have been supportive partners as well.

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Attorney General Robert Kennedy surrounded by African American children at the Morningside Community Center in Harlem, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What do you hope people take away from the Harlem Education History Project?

As the site continues to evolve, we hope it conveys the multiplicity and importance of stories about education in Harlem schools across the twentieth century, including in periods in which this complexity is often reduced to labels of “crisis” or “failure.” We hope that the potential of the digital – from listening to oral history clips to reading a digital exhibit organized around a map to moving back and forth between a chapter in a scholarly volume to related or divergent primary sources – make these stories more apparent and more engaging. And we hope that our exhibits (a small number now, but growing) attest to the range of analytical and interpretive approaches that these sources merit.

Although we continue to add to the project documentation on the site, I also hope that it conveys a sense of collaborations working to construct themselves, and reflects a humility about our work in this context. Looking back at our first conversations about the project, there are many things that we can imagine having done differently. We got started on this project via collaborative relationships within the university, building collaborative relationships with community members gradually along the way. At times this meant we needed to circle back to previous decisions and revise them, as in the case of our project name.

Each of the different collaborations on which this project depends has its own rhythm, character, and pressures – with Youth Historians and the schools and programs they attend, with the alumni and/or current communities at our featured schools, with scholars and community leaders who have been formal and informal advisors. Each is necessary as we seek not only to bring community knowledge to bear on university-based knowledge production, but to see university resources in the service of community knowledge-production.

What other projects or ideas most influenced this work?

Many projects and ideas circulating in digital humanities networks have been important provocations and, in some cases guides, for our work in progress. (This is not to claim that our work matches the aspirations or standards of these projects – but to recognize that we are learning from and thinking about their examples for our work, as others might want to as well).

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Bookstore in Harlem, New York, exterior, photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

These projects illustrate approaches to collaborative digital work in relationship both to the specific history involved and the contemporary landscape; some address the fundamental question that all digital historical work should consider: beyond what legally can be shared online as a matter of copyright law, what should be shared online and who decides?

Additionally, our approach to work in public around recent social history, especially with the stories of people who were not public figures, is informed by oral history practice and ethics. (For example, students creating digital exhibits around recent oral histories have contributed to a developing practice that ensures that oral history narrators have opportunities for feedback and response to exhibits that center on their lives).

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Stokely Carmichael, LeRoi Jones, and H. Rap Brown in Michaux’s Bookstore, Harlem, New York, photograph by James E. Hinton, 1967, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Where do you hope the project goes in the future?

There are a few clear next steps, and other possibilities that may or may not come to fruition. First, once it is published, the full text of our edited volume will appear online as part of our site. We need next to decide what form this will take, but we have permission from the press that is now sending the volume for review to make the text fully available online with unfettered public access). We need to work especially to make the site not only include the book but have it feel a synergistic part of the work overall, connected to the primary source material and digital exhibits in the site.

Another next step is to build out the digital presence of our second featured school, The Modern School – which was an independent black progressive school that operated in Harlem from the 1930s through the 1990s. We partnered with a local history organization While We Are Still Here and The Modern School alumni community to host an event at which we collected several oral histories, and will continue to collect more. As these materials are processed, we look forward to building a collaboration that will determine how The Modern School’s history appears on our site.

Presenting any history digitally involves so many decisions – inclusion or exclusion, metadata, aesthetics, hierarchy – all of which involve choices. Who makes these choices, in a university-based and community-engaged project? In our earliest stages, university-based participants made many of these choices, in consultation with a few key community partners. Deeper collaboration going forward means navigating and recognizing the distinct positions that various participants occupy – people deeply invested in this history but less engaged in the digital; people for whom this is paid work, or those for whom it is volunteer work; volunteers who are retired, or are working full-time but still want to be involved, as a few examples among others.

Although connecting with local teachers has long been an ambition of ours, it is one that we haven’t yet seen realized. In the coming year, especially as one of our featured schools is undergoing a major regeneration and improvement, we are looking forward to connecting more with local teachers.

As a former teacher in a Harlem public high school, this is particularly important to me. I’ve been haunted by a bit of history that I had learned well after leaving high school teaching. I taught in the building that had been Junior High School 136. As Adina Back taught us in her work on the Harlem Nine, this very school was one of the hubs of mothers’ organizing against segregation in 1958. This concrete, geographically specific story raised questions for me that I should have thought more about as a teacher: was I connecting with my students’ parents as fierce advocates for their children? What would it have meant for my students to learn civil rights movement history with this example from their own school building, perhaps the same classroom where activists’ children attended and then boycotted? Whatever knowledge this project creates, it must be readily accessible to today’s teachers in Harlem.

Finally, in the next phase of this project we may return to a question we explored early on but then were pulled away from as other opportunities opened. What are the particular opportunities created for spatial thinking, analysis, representation in an intensively local digital project? What can you see, or what questions are raised, when various primary sources – from oral histories to archival documents – can be seen spatially, with metadata and an interface that allows for mapping as an exploratory process? Since we were asking this question in 2012, other projects have taken up this direction. We’ll be learning from their example.

EricksonAuthorPicAnsley T. Erickson, Associate Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; Affiliated faculty, Teachers College Institute for Urban and Minority Education; Affiliated faculty, Columbia University Department of History 

Ansley Erickson is a U.S. historian who focuses on educational inequality, segregation, and the interactions between schooling, urban and metropolitan space, and the economy. Her first book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2016 and won the History of Education Society’s Outstanding Book Award in 2017. Her work has also been awarded the History of Education Society Prize (2016), the Bancroft Dissertation Prize (2010), and the Claude A. Eggertsen Dissertation Prize (2011). Her research has been supported by an NAE/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, an Eisenhower Institute fellowship, and a Spencer Dissertation Fellowship. 

Erickson co-directs the Harlem Education History Project with Ernest Morrell, Coyle Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Notre Dame. In 2017-18, she was a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.

[1] Initially we worked across various platforms – a WordPress blog for conference information and other events, a CommentPress site for contributors to our edited volume to share and comment on one anothers’ drafts, as well as an Omeka instance for digital versions of primary source materials. Gradually, we reconfigured our Omeka site to do the work the blog had been doing as well.

Featured image (at top): New York, New York. Phillipe Schuyler, child prodigy pianist, leading a group of children in the Harlem Center for Children in singing her arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner at the children’s benefit for a nursery in Harlem, Roger Smith, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Digital Summer School: Renewing Inequality

Undoubtedly, one of the break out digital humanities projects of the last decade is Mapping Inequality: Redlining in America, the impressively ambitious and ultimately very successful work resulting from the collaboration of scholars at Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland including LaDale Winling, Nathan Connolly, Richard Marciano, Brent Cebul and directed by Robert K. Nelson out of the University of Richmond.

In 2016, Forbes ranked it as one of the five GIS projects changing the public’s conception of institutional racism. As University of Iowa’s Sarah Bond wrote of Mapping Inequality: “Such spatial analysis allows us not only to see how racism is instituted, but also to see how historical decisions continue to have an impact on the U.S. today.” Nelson, Cebul, and others have embarked on a new digital initiative on a topic close the hearts of urban historians, urban renewal, with Renewing Inequality: Urban Renewal, Family Displacements, and Race, 1955-1966. The two historians sat down with The Metropole to discuss the motivations behind Renewing Inequality, the complexity of mapping urban renewal projects, and the insights they hope to provide into the process of post-World War II economic development.

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Urban renewal demonstrators protesting plans to redevelopment Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, (outside City Hall, NY), January 19, 1962, Prints and Photograhs Division, Library of Congress

What was the impetus behind Renewing Inequality and who do you envision as your audience?

Renewing Inequality is the sequel to Mapping Inequality, the earlier project we created around the maps produced by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. We were and continue to be pleased to see journalists and other users of Mapping Inequality make connections between the federal government’s urban policies in the 1930s and the landscape of inequality–particularly along the lines of race–in American cities today. That said, in no simple way did redlining cause or alone shape contemporary inequality. And it wasn’t the only federal policy or program that shaped that landscape.

The urban renewal projects that the federal government largely funded in the third quarter of the twentieth century were arguably just as, if not more impactful than, redlining – and in many cases renewal was the solution prescribed for neighborhoods whose decline was sparked or accelerated by redlining. Those renewal projects ended up displacing hundreds of thousands of families from their homes, they destroyed hundreds of communities, and in many cases they accelerated urban decline rather than abating it. And throughout, families of color disproportionately bore the highest costs of displacement, over-crowding, and entrenched urban decline.

In short, we created Renewing Inequality for much the same reason we created Mapping Inequality: we hope to make more people aware of how the brunt of federal urban policy refracted through local government priorities and elite leadership fell upon the poor and people of color, the impact of which continues to be felt today.
How did this Renewing Inequality come to fruition? Were there any obstacles did you had to overcome?

Urban renewal was obviously a very complicated program. One challenge we struggled with is how to offer an account–a history–of the program where the point was not obscured but instead revealed by the data. The students we worked with spent hundreds of hours entering and correcting data. We ended up being pretty aggressive in selecting the data we used and discarding much of it. We collected, for example, tens of thousands of individual pieces of data that categorized how much of each cleared project was re-zoned or re-purposed for commercial, industrial, residential, and public uses. None of that is visualized or shown in Renewing Inequality. In order to focus as much as we could on the enormous impact of the program on people we decided to foreground data about displacements and either bury pretty deep or entirely ignore other data we collected (which was painful!). We also developed a more qualitative section of the site devoted to the social and planning history of the program – its lived experience – which we call “The People and the Program.”

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Land development project (“Southwest Redevelopment A”), Washington, D.C. Map showing redevelopment and problem areas, architect Keyes, Smith, Satterlee & Lethbridge, between 1951 and 1955, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Another challenge that we faced, which is an ongoing struggle, is finding maps for individual projects. There were thousands of urban renewal projects funded by the federal government in hundreds of cities and towns. It has been surprisingly difficult to find maps for many of these projects, particularly in some of the smaller towns. We’re confident what we have in Renewing Inequality is the largest collection of urban renewal footprints created to date, but it’s still far from being comprehensive. Then again, we also learned that many urban renewal projects –the program funded local code enforcement initiatives, for instance–did not have officially defined project boundaries and therefore maps. But the qualitative historical record suggests that these sorts of programs were almost certainly targeted on specific neighborhoods and people and, in the case of code enforcement, could accelerate displacement by means other than condemnation, eminent domain, and razing homes.

What role do digital projects like Renewing Inequality play in the field of history? Where do you see this project and others like it going in the future?

In urban history, in particular, urban renewal has most often been studied at the scale of the largest cities. In terms of sheer number of people displaced, the Chicagos, Detroits, and New Yorks are clearly the most significant. But what our data also makes clear is that renewal was a program most often deployed in smaller cities of 50,000, 25,000, even 10,000 or fewer residents. If the twentieth century was a century of urbanization, many of these urbanizing cities participated in urban renewal, and often with devastating effects upon residents of color and their urban fabrics. So our hope is that this project joins more recent efforts by scholars such as Douglas Appler and James Connolly to encourage urban historians to broaden our conception of what counts as “urban” in urban history. In the case of urban renewal, a preponderance of programs were deployed in cities like Rome, Georgia or Easton, Pennsylvania. Being able to visualize this historical reality is one way to begin to broaden our field of view.

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Skyline Urban Renewal Area, Arapahoe & 17th Streets (Commercial Buildings), Arapahoe & Seventeenth Streets, Denver, Denver County, CO, photograph by William Edmund Barrett, after 1933, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of the next steps we’re taking is a partnership (still in its infancy) with MASS Design Group on an exhibit tailored to urban designers and planners that might alert them to the history of urban renewal in mid-sized and smaller cities. As with Mapping Inequality, our goal will be to explore the connections between past policies and present inequalities, and, in this case, help urban planners and designers to think more capaciously about the roles of history, enfranchisement, and scale when designing plans for cities across the spectrum of urban forms. This partnership should result in some new applications within Renewing Inequality, so stay tuned for updates to the site.

Urban renewal has been a very big topic among historians, what misperceptions or myths regarding it do you hope to correct?

We’ve mentioned the need to consider smaller and mid-sized cities, where the majority of renewal projects took place and which continue to be the preponderant but too often overlooked urban form in the United States. But another aspect of urban renewal that we visualize though perhaps we don’t emphasize enough is the evolving, surprisingly plastic goals of urban renewal. What began almost exclusively as a housing and development program came to encompass broader goals over time (often when planners and policymakers were faced with resident activism against the local plans). Urban renewal funds were used to advance the expansion of university and colleges by the late 1950s, to take the first steps toward hospital-based redevelopment of deindustrializing cities, and later to rebuild areas decimated by natural disasters. For instance, five of the six cities in Alaska that received “urban renewal” funding received it as disaster funding after the 1964 earthquake that caused a devastating tsunami. The “Valdez Area” project “displaced” the entirety of that small town as it was moved several miles west to a seismically stabler area. These were larger scale programs akin to the earlier uses of the program, but over the course of the 1960s, the program was amended to include much smaller scale interventions: programs for city beautification through tree planting, parks, and playgrounds; citizen outreach meetings and planning initiatives; and even grants directly to homeowners to rehabilitate their homes rather than raze them. Though the backlash to the program brought it to an end in 1974, for over a decade leading up to its demise the program was continuously amended to incorporate critiques of the mega-block style that dominated in the 1950s and early 1960s. We’ve tried to capture this evolution in our legislative history of the program.

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Transportation Center, Cincinnati, Ohio. Schematic section from A Revitalization Plan for the City Core of Cincinnati, Ohio ,planning, Victor Gruen Associates, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Considering the success of Mapping Inequality, how do your hopes or aspirations for Renewing Inequality compare? Similar? Different? Why? 

One of the tragic ironies at the heart of the success of Mapping Inequality is that it derives from the perverse beauty and clarity of the HOLC maps themselves as well as the ugliness and equally clear racism so often voiced in the accompanying area descriptions. The forcefulness and intelligibility of these materials has led to a great deal of visibility for our site. But those same qualities have also led some to point to redlining as a monocausal agent leading to all sorts of instances of urban inequality today. Renewing Inequality complicates those monocausal explanations of contemporary inequality. While complexity isn’t always the best route to attracting eyeballs, Renewing Inequality offers a very data-rich, comparative, and nuanced portrait of the ongoing effort to redevelop cities at midcentury that helps to explain not only ongoing forms of inequality but why it is that downtowns in places as seemingly distinct as Lawton, Oklahoma (population 61,700 in 1960) and Boston share characteristics like modernist, megablock, center city developments.

Featured image (at top): Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Model, wide view, architect Paul Rudolph, between 1967 and 1972, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

unnamed.jpgRobert K. Nelson is director of the Digital Scholarship Lab and affiliated faculty in the American Studies Program at the University of Richmond. He has authored, directed, or edited digital humanities projects such as American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History, “Mining the Dispatch,” and an enhanced edition of the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. He teaches and writes on antislavery and slavery in the nineteenth-century United States.

Cebul_BBrent Cebul is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His scholarship sits at the intersection of urban and political history with topical interests in federalism, inequality, and political and economic development. His first book is Illusions of Progress: Business, Poverty, and Development in the American Century (under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press). It is a history of how and why 20th century liberals repeatedly convinced themselves that stimulating business growth might fight poverty. At Penn, Cebul is also a Mellon Research Fellow at the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

Digital Summer School: Gotham

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you hope people take away from it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Summer School: The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee

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

Twitter handle for EMKE: @MkeEncyclopedia

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

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

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

What do you hope people take away from it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

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

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

When did you start to consider yourself a digital historian?

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Summer School: Tropics of Meta

Distinguished urbanist Matthew G. Lasner of Hunter College recently completed his term as Exhibitions and Media Bibliographer for the UHA newsletter, and in his outgoing comments he shared some wry and accurate advice with editor Hope Shannon: “I’m certain far more of our members would be interested in digital projects, new websites and tools, etc. than in a list of exhibitions that have already closed (which what I’ve been serving up the last several years).”

In his remarks, Professor Lasner actually paralleled our internal discussions at The Metropole. With the explosion of the interwebs, digital scholarship has taken on a new life and importance within the field of urban history and in the culture more broadly. There are so many worthwhile online sources, so how does a historian began to tackle them?

The Metropole, a digital project in its own right, wants to be part of the solution, and so from July through August we will be running Digital Summer School. Much like our Member of the Week format, each week we will highlight a different online digital project. We’ve tried to create a diverse list (particularly in terms of subject matter, geography, and demography), but more generally the goal is to increase the visibility of each project while hopefully sparking discussion regarding the place of digital scholarship and the role of digital scholars both within the field of urban history and more broadly among the general public.

With this in mind and on the eve of the World Cup, The Metropole wanted to provide a launch the series with Tropics of Meta (ToM) which itself just launched “The Other Football,” a new initiative coinciding with the famed international soccer tournament. Undoubtedly, ToM has been covering much more than football over the past eight years; it has served as a digital clearing house for a variety of academic pursuits. Senior Editors Alex Sayf Cummings and Romeo Guzman give us the inside details on one of the internet’s longest running academic/culture blogs.

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ToM co-founder and Senior Editor, Georgia State University Historian, Alex Sayf Cummings

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

Tropics of Meta (or “ToM”) was founded in early 2010 by Alex Cummings and Ryan Reft. Its goal was to bring together early-career scholars, both in-grad-school and just-out-of-grad-school, to create some kind of online forum for discussing their own work and historical scholarship in general. The aim was to provide a space for the feeling of camaraderie and intellectual community that many of us found lacking as we moved into the dissertation-writing, postdoc, and junior faculty phases of our careers. At first, we did not know exactly what form it would take, but we settled on a blog platform.

Our original audience was really ourselves and our small network of historian friends. We did not think much about traffic, site stats, or social media outreach in the beginning. However, over time our roster of contributors expanded, and with it the reach of the site; we soon began to run into strangers at conferences who said they liked the site and read it regularly. Since our focus is very general — “historiography for the masses” is our motto, and the site ranges from urban studies to legal history, from sports to foreign policy — we tend to grab a readership across disciplinary bounds. Our main audience remains within academia, but we also attract a good deal of traffic from general-interest readers who find articles by searching terms such as “civil war total war” or “female gremlin” or “what was the orginal purpose for sanctuary cities” online.

 

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ToM Senior Editor and SEMAP co-founder, Fresno State Historian Romeo Guzman

What do you hope people take away from it?

We really want ToM to show that scholars can use an online platform to present original research and synthesize scholarship in a way that is engaging for any reasonably intelligent and curious reader. We also try to cultivate a voice that can be intellectually serious but also wry, funny, and freewheeling, while still focusing on publishing substantial, longform writing.

ToM has hosted a variety of different digital and public history projects over the years — the South El Monte Art Posse’s (SEMAP) East of East and the Valley Public History Initiative’s Straight Outta Fresno and The Other Football: Tracing the Game’s Roots and Routes in the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno State). As the co-director of SEMAP and founder and director of VPHI, Romeo Guzmán has served as director or co-director on all these projects, as well as an editor at Tropics, with Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, and Ryan Reft contributing as editors on various initiatives. Sean Slusser, an adjust at Fresno State and PhD Candidate at UCR is the co-director of Straight Outta Fresno. In all these projects, Tropics of Meta has served as a space to promote the original work of students, faculty, and independent scholars; to invite community members to contribute to the archive; to share what we are collecting; and to begin to use digital archives to actually publish scholarship.

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

Tropics of Meta has really come to fruition through the unstinting effort of our editors and the generosity of dozens of contributors who freely shared their creative work over the years. It’s an extraordinary thing considering the fact that early-career scholars — nervously sweating the job market or awaiting decisions about promotion & tenure — have no definite assurance that this work will “count” for them in professional terms. We do believe that writing for ToM has redounded to the benefit of many of our contributors, though, as digital work is increasingly valued by the academy and the public at large. (Numerous contributors have had their pieces re-published widely by major news outlets worldwide, while others have found career opportunities in part because of their work for the site.)

One of our biggest challenges has been developing a collaborative structure and workflow that makes sure pieces get solicited, posts reviewed and edited, feedback given, books reviewed, pieces pushed out on social media, and so on. We’re all pretty allergic to having a hierarchical structure and did not want to recreate a little mini corporation, but having some kind of effective organizational communication is really a necessity. We’ve tried different ways of collaborating over the years (Gchat and Google Docs, Slack, and so on), and we’re still feeling our way through this even now. What has worked very well, though, is our current structure: senior editors and associate editors, who solicit new contributions, spearhead new projects, and edit and give feedback on posts; a larger team of senior writers who contribute frequently; and a digital content coordinator who focuses on our social media outreach.

 Where do you hope it goes in the future?

With all these projects Tropics of Meta serves as a really important place-holder. Instead of waiting for the entire project to be done or for a digital collection to be created, we are able to improvise and build and share as we go. To use language from SEMAP’s East of East, in many ways our digital presence allows us to center the community and public and to remain in touch. The process itself is really important with or without a goal, but we are also always thinking about ways to translate the work into bigger projects of lasting significance, such as an actual digital archive or a book manuscript. For example, East of East: The Making of Greater Mexico, 1700-2017 (edited by Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, Romeo Guzmán, and Ryan Reft) is currently under review at Rutgers University Press.

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Playing Cards for “The Other Football” project

So far, what moment or event related to your digital project comes to mind when I say “greatest achievement” or “unique insight”?

That is a great question. We think Tropics of Meta and SEMAP are similar in that they are ultimately grassroots projects in the sense that they happen because we dedicate time and energy to them. For the most part, they aren’t housed in an institution. So perhaps one of the greatest achievements is getting so many folks to believe in our idea and to lend their time, energy, and expertise. Perhaps also the credibility that we’ve gained and doors that have opened up as a result of these projects. Guzmán, for example, got a job as a public historian based on his work with SEMAP. And of course, it’s pretty awesome that we’ve convinced so many people that a small working-class community east of East Los Angeles is vital to understanding the history of Southern California and California in general.

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Jaime Ramirez playing card (front) from “The Other Football”

In general, we have just come to understand that the so-called borders within the field of history — between public history and… non-public (?) history, digital and non-digital, academia and the public, institutions and local communities — are far more porous than people often think. Sometimes they hardly matter at all. It is quite possible to engage faculty, students, activists, artists, and community groups, young and old, scholar and non-scholar, in really dynamic conversations.

What have you learned about Fresno or what surprising aspects of Fresno have been revealed to you through your projects?

We just started The Other Football this spring, but we’ve already learned so much about soccer in Fresno and more broadly about soccer in the U.S. It’s a cliche to say that immigrants brought soccer to the U.S., but it’s absolutely true. The history of immigration to the United States can’t be separated from the history of soccer in the valley. Perhaps the most clear example of this comes from the work of Guzmán’s undergraduate student Tyler Caffee. His work has shown that it was an Iraqi immigrant who brought soccer to Visalia and started its first high school soccer team.

The other insight relates to a lot of conversations about soccer in the United States. The

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Jaime Ramirez playing card (back) from “The Other Football”

USMNT’s failure to make it to the World Cup has raised a lot of questions about U.S. soccer and its pay-to-play system. Often times folks will use “formal” and “informal” to describe soccer worlds in the U.S., pay-to-play vs “Sunday Leagues” (or adult leagues). From Fresno, we’ve learned about the vital role that folks who move between these two worlds can play. For example, in 2018 Fresno welcomed its first professional soccer team: Fresno FC. This USL team was made possible because of the groundwork that the PDL team Fresno Fuego had created. Fuego was successful because it brought together these different soccer communities. There are a ton of really important individuals who made Fuego possible, but I’ll just mention one to illustrate this point. Jaime Ramirez, Fuego’s first coach, attended Pacific University and eventually became the men’s head coach. As a head coach at one of two four-year universities, he has created a club team (pay-to-play) for kids in a working-class neighborhood, coached adult teams in the San Joaquin Valley, and recruited first generation college students. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of his former players — Tony Alvarez — spearheaded the founding of Fresno Fuego. In short, the movement of individuals between these two worlds is vital to the healthy growth of soccer in the United States. I think we’d do well to find ways to replicate and encourage this type of movement.

Plotting Yiddish Drama: A New Digital Resource for Urban History and Beyond

By Sonia Gollance and Joel Berkowitz

The history of Yiddish theatre is embedded – quite literally – in urban space. If you walk past the Chase Bank on the site of the former Second Avenue Deli in New York City’s East Village neighborhood, the sidewalk is emblazoned with the “Yiddish Theatre Walk of Fame” – metal stars bearing the names of prominent figures from the heyday of the New York Yiddish theatre scene. Most passersby probably no longer remember the star power of Molly Picon or Maurice Schwartz. Yet a century ago, they (and many other individuals whose names are even less familiar now) were extremely influential figures for the millions of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish immigrants who spent their leisure time in the “Jewish Rialto” of the Second Avenue theatres. We’d like to introduce you to a new resource, Plotting Yiddish Drama, which is a useful, English-language tool for scholars of urban life, whether they are studying the lives of Yiddish theatre attendees or just want to understand why they are standing on a metal star that says “Moishe Oysher.”

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Molly Picon, full-length portrait, facing front, in costume for the musical comedy “Abi Gezunt”, Moss Photo, N.Y., 1949, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Over its centuries-long, international history, Yiddish drama has tackled all the major challenges modern Jewry has faced, including the tension between tradition and modernity; political movements within and beyond the Jewish community; changes in family structures and gender roles; violent cataclysms, including wars and pogroms; mass emigration; and debates over the creation of a Jewish nation-state. The issues these plays present are crucial for modern Jewish Studies, but also intersect with topics that will interest scholars in a variety of fields. Familiarity with Yiddish drama therefore serves as an important tool to better understand significant aspects of world history and culture, including Jewish life in urban centers such as Warsaw, New York, and Buenos Aires.

Enter “Plotting Yiddish Drama” (PYD), a new initiative of the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project (DYTP) that you can begin to sample now, which will gradually expand in terms of both the content it covers and the tools we create to help us better understand connections among many different Yiddish plays. At PYD’s core are searchable plot synopses of Yiddish plays. We’ve started off with just a dozen dramas—all of them historically important, but with no suggestion that they are the twelve most important Yiddish plays. Over time, we plan to build PYD into an interactive, mappable, searchable database containing the synopses of hundreds of Yiddish plays that offer windows not only into the details of specific dramas, but also of the richness, complexity, and variety of the Yiddish dramatic repertoire as a whole.

fullsizeoutput_1513.jpegWe envision PYD as a resource for a variety of different research questions and methodologies involving urban history.

  • Scholars of popular culture and leisure practices can learn more about the theatre-going habits of urban Jewish audiences. Melodramatic plots? Family crises? Musical numbers? Yiddish theatre hits were full of these elements, and PYD is a useful reference for anyone who wants to find out what people were watching in urban centers. If you read a memoir that mentions someone went to an Avrom Goldfaden operetta, PYD can help you find out what would have happened on stage.
  • Yiddish drama is set in diverse locations, including cities around the world. PYD tags where plays are set, which helps scholars identify how these particular cities are portrayed. Are specific neighborhoods depicted? Stereotypical traits or regional dialects mocked? PYD can point you towards fascinating texts, such as Chava Rosenfarb’s The Bird of the Ghetto, which depicts the Vilna Ghetto during the Holocaust.
  • PYD tags where plays were first performed, which helps chart the Yiddish theatrical repertoire as it developed around the world. Combined with other DYTP resources, PYD can help scholars track cultural life in specific theatre districts and the touring history of particular individuals or theatre companies. Stay tuned for an upcoming batch of plays from the repertoire of New York’s Yiddish Art Theatre.

We encourage you to start exploring Plotting Yiddish Drama now, and as it grows, to continue visiting different plays, each one its own neighborhood in the Yiddish repertoire. You may get lost at times, but immersing oneself in the world of Yiddish drama offers its own pleasures. Let Plotting Yiddish Drama be your map.

Sonia Gollance holds a Moritz Stern Postdoctoral Fellowship in Modern Jewish Studies at Lichtenberg-Kolleg (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany). She received her PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently writing a book about the literary motif of Jewish mixed-sex dancing, and developing a project about the role of dance in antisemitic caricature. Her articles have appeared in In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and Austrian Studies. She is the Managing Editor of Plotting Yiddish Drama.

Joel Berkowitz is Director of the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies and Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A historian of the Yiddish theatre and translator of Yiddish drama, he is the author of Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, editor of Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches, and co-editor of Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology and Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage. He is the co-founder, with Debra Caplan, of the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project.

Featured image (image at top): Theatre as synagogue, New York, 1912, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Reckoning with Seattle: Race, Class, and Community in the Emerald City

The historiography of Seattle evades simple classification. Urban historians might ask, why Seattle? What does the city’s history contribute to our understanding of urban planning, housing policy, and the urgent questions surrounding race and policing? Where to locate Seattle within regional and cartographic taxonomies, and their attendant historiographies, is similarly fraught. Indeed Seattle features prominently in scholarship coming out of the fields of Western History, Pacific Northwest History, and Urban History. Similarly, the transnational turn in U.S. history and American Studies has led to new insights that situate Seattle within the larger Asia-Pacific world. Finally, the city offers scholars in the fields of Ethnic Studies, Asian American Studies, Indigenous Studies, African American Studies, and Latina/o and Chicana/o Studies a rich text to examine multiracial an multiethnic solidarities as well as comparative and relational processes of racial formation.

It would be wrong to say my work is firmly grounded in, and ultimately about, Seattle. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to describe my scholarly relationship to the city as Seattle-adjacent. I began graduate school intending to write about the relationship between the city’s Black and Asian residents in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of that research will appear in a forthcoming article for the Pacific Historical Review entitled “Politics in Other Ways: Negotiating Black Power, Radical Politics, and Multiracial Solidarities in Seattle’s Asian American Community.” The article examines the terrain of Black, Asian, and Latino community activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I excavate the ways in which a cadre of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans joined with radical activists from the city’s Black and Latino communities, claiming solidarity across difference to articulate an inclusive, anti-racist politics in a city that had long heralded its exceptional commitment to racial harmony.

The article opens with Japanese American resident Mike Tagawa’s decision to join the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. Tagawa was not the only Asian American to join the Panthers; he was soon joined by Japanese American teenager Guy Kurose and Filipino musician Mike Gillespie.[1] To be sure, Seattle was not the only city in which Asian Americans were either official members of, or close collaborators with, the Black Panther Party.[2] But thanks to the incredible digital repository of documents, oral history interviews, and historical newspapers created by the University of Washington historian James Gregory and his students, robust, granular research of these multiracial and multiethnic encounters is possible. The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project is a model for digital humanities projects on its own. It is a collaboration between faculty, archivists and librarians, students, and members of the local community, allowing for first-person narratives from the city’s activist grassroots.

 

Black Panther tagawa5 400w
Mike Tagawa, Garfield High School, 1969. Photo credit Eugene Tagawa,
http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/tagawa.htm

 

yellow-peril-Black-Power-sign
Richard Aoki via http://www.eugenelim.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/yellow-peril-Black-Power-sign.jpg

At the center of this story is the area in and around the Central District, a four square mile section of the city sitting between downtown Seattle to the west and Lake Washington at its eastern border. In addition to being the center of the Black community, it also sat directly adjacent to the Asian American International District. As was the case with Black neighborhoods and “ethnic enclaves” in cities across the nation, the composition of the region was the result of decades of legal and informal forms of racial housing segregation.[3] But the shared experiences caused by this spatial proximity created the very possibilities for a grassroots multiracial activism poised to challenge both the structures of racial inequality and the limits of racial liberalism. Seattle was not the only city in which residents built multiracial solidarities, of course. But the fact that Black and Asian residents were largely integrated in segregated Central District created opportunities not so easily realized in other cities. Tagawa said of growing up in in the Central District: “It was all good. We all got along. I guess I kind of thought that it was kind of like that every place” and “it was almost like paradise because all the races got along.”[4]

Seattle-as-place is fundamental to this research in another way. In the second half of the 1960s—marked by urban rebellion, the rising influence of Black Power direct-action tactics, and municipal debates about the War on Poverty—cities were at the epicenter of many of the nation’s most urgent debates. Within the national discourse about the so-called “urban crisis,” Seattle leaders made a case for its unique regional identity, couched in a celebratory historical narrative of multiracial and multicultural harmony.[5] In many ways—at least in the public pronouncements of officials and community leaders—it exemplified the post-World War II ideology of racial liberalism, which held that the problems of racial inequality and subjugation were not systemic and could be solved through the palliative effects of political inclusion.[6]

Seattle, Washington Roosevelt Hotel sign
Roosevelt Hotel sign, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, September 22, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

In a 1967 address to the city council, Mayor J.D. Braman stated that the “social and related problems we have are far, far less critical than those in many other cities.”[7] Edwin Pratt, the Executive Director of the Seattle Urban League (SUL) and a celebrated leader of the city’s Black community also weighed in, telling a Seattle Times reporter in 1966, “Seattle, like San Francisco, has been given a reputation of a cosmopolitan, color-blind racially progressive city.”[8] Such pronouncements from city officials were especially meaningful at a moment of such turbulence in urban centers throughout the nation. In an era of widespread urban rebellion, conflict between municipal officials and residents over the appropriation of War on Poverty funds and programmatic leadership, the rise of Black Power and other radical grassroots formations, and growing national discontent with the Vietnam War, city leaders counted themselves lucky.[9] Indeed in 1967 alone, just one year after Braman and Pratt praised Seattle’s “progressive” racial politics, of the 164 collective disorders between police and urban residents reported by the National Advisory Council on Civil Disorders, Seattle was conspicuously absent.[10]

My analysis seeks to explicate the possibilities and limits of radical politics under hegemonic conditions of racial liberalism. And here again the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project as well as the records housed at University of Washington Special Collections provide a rich repository of documents, audio recordings, and images that illuminate a multiplicity of voices and disrupt establishment narratives.

In the wake of increasing tension and violence between Central District residents and the police following a number of police shootings of African American men and the arrest of Black Panther chapter head Aaron Dixon and member Curtis Harris ostensibly over stolen office supplies, the response from the established leadership of conservative organizations like the Japanese American Citizens League was often tepid at best. Nevertheless, a growing cadre of younger Black and Asian residents similarly committed to radical anti-racist, anti-capitalist exploitation politics continued to work—purposeful, intentioned dialogue based on an ethic of listening and hearing before speaking—to find common ground. As such, my analysis privileges complexity and contradiction, attending to the process of grassroots activism and politics.

One example in particular shows how these multiracial configurations of community and identity were put into practice. Between 1965 and 1969, local residents organized a monthly community meeting series. The Grass Roots Forum, as it was called, brought together a panel of “experts” and residents to discuss the chosen topic for the month. Crucially however, the largest portion of time was allotted for audience participation. Unlike community meetings initiated by city officials to introduce and discuss municipal programs, the purpose of the Grass Roots series was not immediate policy-making and implementation. Rather, it was meant to be an inclusionary, multiracial, and autonomous space in which the community decided for itself the issues it found most pressing. Topics, which included “The World Revolution of Color” and “Seattle’s Scheduled Race Riot,” offered a snapshot of the most urgent concerns and interests in the Central District area. By creating a space for creative and spontaneous engagement, Grass Roots offered alternatives to the often-stifling political process, and represented what the historian Anthony Macias calls “multicultural urban civility.”[11]

Unlike the frenzied bureaucratic efficiency of City Hall, characterized by cutthroat competition, deadlines, and funding constraints, and in which success and failure was measured strictly by legislation passed and government funds awarded, Grass Roots created space for alternative temporal rhythms and means of participation. At the same time, however, panelists and invited speakers often came from the leadership ranks of established civil rights and civic organizations. Rather than evaluate it according to moderate/radical or establishment/outsider binaries, I consider the Grass Roots Forum series as a contested terrain, one upon which panelists and audience members made competing claims to ownership over the space and its messaging. Inasmuch as the panelists’ words provide insight into the multiple identities and ideologies of Central District residents, the spontaneous disruptions of audience members and the debate they elicited revealed the tangled, nuanced relationship between established leadership and the alternative imaginaries of residents at the grassroots level. At different moments, and in unexpected ways, panelists either quarreled with audience members or departed from the organizational frameworks they represented, claiming solidarity with the radical demands of audience members.

On December 14th 1965 residents convened for a Grass Roots panel entitled, “Should Orientals Become Involved in the Civil Rights Movement?” The urgency of questions surrounding Black and Asian civil rights collaborations was evinced by the large turnout, with the Seattle Times noting over 100 people in attendance,[12] The six-person panel made up a cross-section of prominent members of the Chinese and Japanese community establishment: it included attorneys, architects, business owners, and leaders in Asian civic organizations.[13] While the panel certainly tended towards a middle-class orientation, the discussion that followed evinced the presence of genuine grassroots critique and alternative configurations based on more explicitly anti-racist and working-class orientations.

The panelists all acknowledged a collective hesitancy in the Asian American community to fully embrace and participate in movements for racial justice. They argued however, that their inaction did not reflect a lack of concerns; rather, they blamed the “particular cultural background of Orientals,” which discouraged “demonstrative acts like walking on picket lines or carrying signs.”[14] But Benjamin Woo, a prominent architect and member of a number of local civic organizations stated that this was no longer an acceptable justification for political inaction, and the time had come for leadership and active participation in the civil rights struggle in order to “arouse the citizenry, including the White population, to the same degree of indignation over racial discrimination as would ensue if the city decided to put a garbage dump next door.”[15] Chinese American attorney and active member of the Chinese American civic organization, the Cathay Post, Warren Chan echoed many of the same sentiments when he said in response to the forum’s central question: “Is it possible for a member of a minority group to not be involved?” when they were already involved each time they “walke[d] out into the street, climb[ed] on a bus, or sat down in a restaurant.”[16]

In the discussion that followed, audience members challenged the panelists in spirited and contentious debate. Walter Hundley, the director of the Seattle CORE chapter and who would later become director of the city’s Model Cities Program, argued that complaints from Asian American leaders about the challenges in political organizing were nothing more than a “red herring” meant to “divide and disrupt popular action.”[17] This was met with audible agreement from African Americans in the audience, with one noting the same tensions existed within the Black community between working-class residents of the Central District and middle-class Blacks who they believed to be “too well satisfied with the status quo.”[18] A Seattle Times article about the forum reported that the general sentiments among African American audience members was that the spirit of “defeatism” in the struggle to organize the Asian American community was the real obstacle to multiracial harmony.

Just when it seemed as though the debate had reached an impasse, the respected Japanese American community leader, Reverend Mineo Katagiri, rose to speak. As one of the elder statesmen in the Japanese American community, Katagiri elicited respect from middle-class members of the JACL to the younger generation of activists, many of whom aligned themselves with the working-class orientation of Black Power activists in spite of their own middle-class upbringing. Drawing perhaps the loudest applause of the night, Katagiri addressed Asian Americans in attendance, asking “Are we willing to recognize the leadership of the Negro in the civil rights movement and join with him?”[19] Local Japanese American architect Calvin Takagi followed with his own address to the Nisei. “Recognizing that tomorrow it may be our turn—again,” they had two options: either “play it cool or get in the fight.” The only possible decision, he said, was to get in the fight and build solidarity based not on direct equivalence of experience and circumstance, but on a shared commitment to racial and economic justice.

Public Market Center, Seattle, Washington
Public Market Center, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, August 4, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

The Grass Roots Forum series revealed two often-conflicting political trajectories in the Central District, both of which are central to my broader analysis. On the one hand, their very existence was a testament to the commitment among the established leaders of the area’s Black and Asian communities to build bridges and lines of communication across racial and ethnic lines. Conversely the largely middle-class and integrationist orientation of the panelists exposed the increasing ideological chasm between proponents of liberal integration and those who imagined radical alternatives and resisted co-option by the state.

The extant scholarship on Seattle has made crucial interventions in topics ranging from immigration, working class life and labor, race, gender and sexuality, environmental studies, urban studies, globalization, and popular culture (please see accompanying bibliography here). And yet important and interesting questions and problems remain. The changes to the landscape and the city’s demographic wrought by gentrification and expansion of the tech-economy are certainly worthy of study. The study of sport should also look to Seattle. As American professional sporting leagues increasingly become global commodities explicitly targeting Asian markets, the Seattle Mariners franchise has been a leader in actively scouting and signing Japanese and Korean players, notably the Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. There were also a number of ethnic and racial community sports leagues throughout the twentieth century that may be useful for scholars of sport, Asian American history, and African American history.

Inasmuch as Seattle’s national profile is often based on pithy images of rain-soaked, outdoorsy coffee addicts listening to 1990s alt-rock, scholars have long made a compelling case for the significance and uniqueness of the city and its history. Indeed, Seattle may be uniquely positioned for relevance in the age of globalization, transnational mobilities and identities, and multiracial configurations of urban communities.

Maki Smith is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Global and Intercultural Studies (Asian/Asian American Studies) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Smith received his PhD in US History from the University of California, San Diego in 2015, and is currently preparing the manuscript for his first book, Unruly Democracy: Global Movements and the Crisis of Cold War Governance

[1] Aaron Dixon, My People are Rising: Memoirs of a Black Panther Party Captain (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 104.

[2] Diane C. Fujino, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[3] Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Steven Gregory, Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Craig Wilder, A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[4] Mike Tagawa, interview by Janet Jones, 6 June 2005, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/tagawa.htm.

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[5] See Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011) and Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District From 1870 Through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994).

[6] Racism, according to this framework was not structural and deeply embedded in the nation’s institutions and society, but was rather a problem of individual prejudice. As such, racial liberalism brought with it a kind of optimism about the capacity of individuals to overcome their own prejudices through increased understanding and familiarity. Since racism was simply the “bad ideology” of individuals and was contradictory to the fundamental tenets of equality and justice at the heart of national exceptionalist mythology, eradicating it would not require massive structural and institutional readjustments. See Daniel Martinez HoSang, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives in the Making of Postwar California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 13-14; Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Peggy Pasco, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 313.

[7] Marshall Kaplan, Gans, and Kahn, The Model Cities Program: The Planning Process in Atlanta, Seattle, and Dayton (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 44-47.

[8] Lane Smith, “Potential Here, Say Rights Leaders: Seattle Not Immune From Race Disturbances,” Seattle Times, 12 October 1966, Box 13, Folder 31, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[9] Indeed, disputes over the degree to which the War on Poverty’s requirement of “maximum feasible participation” granted individual communities autonomy and programmatic authority was one of the principle sources of conflict between government officials and city residents throughout the country. In cities from Oakland, to Detroit, to New York, residents and officials clashed—at times to the point of violence and collective rebellion—over the boundaries between the government’s conception of permissible levels of participation and local demands for community control. See for example Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

[10] See National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 113.

[11] Anthony Macias, “Bringing Music to the People: Race, Urban Culture, and Municipal Politics in Postwar Los Angeles,” American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (September 2004), 694.

[12] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[13] They included: Midori Thiel of the JACL; prominent attorney and active member of the Cathay Post, Warren Chan; University of Washington professor of Social Work, Calvin Takagi; architect and active member of the JSCC the Seattle China Club, Benjamin Woo; attorney and member of the Seattle Housing Advisory and JACL, Toru Sakahara; and moderator and JACL chapter vice-president, Fran Wada.

[14] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[15] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[16] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[17] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[18] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[19] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.