Tag Archives: Economic History

Member of the Week: Jessica Elfenbein

unnamedJessica Elfenbein

Professor of History

University of South Carolina

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

I’m working on a community study of a now-disappeared place called Ferguson, SC. In the decades following Reconstruction, Chicago lumbermen Benjamin F. Ferguson (1840-1905) and Francis Beidler (1854-1924) made their way to South Carolina, acquired–at bargain prices–significant land (eventually totaling more than 200,000 acres), and began Santee River Cypress Lumber Company (SRCLC). The forest products the company generated were part of an international flow of commodities and helped make personal fortunes, national taste in home furnishings, and the town of Ferguson, South Carolina itself. Built out of the swamp as headquarters for SRCLC (one of the South’s largest lumber enterprises), Ferguson thrived as a company town for more than a quarter century. At its peak as many as 2,500 people from around the world lived and worked there, including local farmers who recast themselves as industrial workers, lumber experts who relocated from the North and Midwest, and Greek and Italian immigrants recruited by labor agents at Ellis Island.

Abandoned by SRCLC in the late 1910s, two decades later Ferguson became part of a New Deal rural electrification and public works project. The damning of the Santee River to build Lakes Marion and Moultrie, then the largest land clearance project on record, required the labor of 12,670 workers and caused the dislocation of 901 African American families. Lake Marion became the final resting place for the town of Ferguson which has now been submerged along the southwestern shore of South Carolina’s largest lake for more than 70 years.

Collaborative work on a Historic Resource Survey for Congaree National Park led me to this topic. The unexpected ties between largely rural South Carolina and cities like Chicago and NYC in the production of commodities, human capital, and philanthropy are fascinating. I am also interested in the environmental and communal costs of this infrastructure project.

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

After 10 years working in university administration, I returned to the faculty last year. I’m teaching Urban History, Public History, and the American History Survey. Next semester I’ll teach our undergraduate historical methods course for the first time. I have always liked the symbiosis of teaching and research. This semester my students and I are researching the residents of Ferguson in 1910 and following their moves to and from the lumber town.

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

I’m just starting Brian McCammack’s Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago. His reconceptualization of the Great Migration looks fantastic.

Recently I have been reading a lot about logging, the history of the lumber industry, and company towns.

My most recent article (with Elise Hagesfeld) is “Philanthropic Funds in Baltimore” in Hammack and Smith, eds., American Philanthropic Foundations: Regional Difference and Change, Indiana University Press, 2018.

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

Invite yourself to the party! Historians have so much of value to add to all kinds of urban and civic projects. My experience is that if you expect to be invited you will miss out. Instead you need to know what’s going on in the places in which you have interest and then find ways to get involved. This is especially true for those of us who study urban topics. Our work is relevant but it’s on us to demonstrate our worth. Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst that will happen is that you’ll end up exactly where you started. A little moxie and a lot of imagination are tools young scholars need. Flexibility helps, too.

Were there any places or local businesses that you discovered in Columbia, and might not have otherwise, through serving on the Local Arrangments Committee for UHA 2018? Did the experience influence the way you look at the city you call home?

After nearly 20 years in Baltimore, I moved to USC and Columbia, SC about seven years ago. I was a relative newcomer here when I answered the RFP to serve as host for UHA 2018. I knew there was a lot in Columbia and as Local Arrangements co-chair, I have learned much more about this place that delights and confounds expectations. For example, USC’s GLTBQ archival collection is the second largest in the Southeast. It has great material for all kinds of projects.

I have also been pleasantly surprised by the excellent service the UHA has received from ExperienceColumbiaSC, our convention and visitors’ bureau.

Finally, I suspected that Historic Columbia would be a great partner to the UHA, but again, my expectations have been exceeded by the dedication and commitment of Executive Director (and Local Arrangements co-chair) Robin Waites and her staff. I’m no sports fan, but I know for sure that they “punch above their weight.”

Member of the Week: Kim Phillips-Fein

Gallatin HeadshotKim Phillips-Fein

Associate Professor

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

New York University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Mason Williams

WilliamsMason Williams

Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science

Williams College

@masonbwilliams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Bridget Flannery-McCoy

BFM_photo_smBridget Flannery-McCoy

Editor in Economics and US History

Columbia University Press

@bridgetfmccoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Andrew Konove

HeadshotAndrew Konove

Assistant Professor

Department of History, University of Texas at San Antonio

@AndrewKonove

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

I just completed my first book, Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City, which will be published later this spring. It traces the history of Mexico City’s infamous “thieves’ market,” called the Baratillo, from its origins in the seventeenth century to the present day, revealing how illicit street commerce has been central to both the urban economy and urban politics since the colonial era. My new research grows out of that project. I’m looking at how the circulation of informal currencies, which were traded in markets like the Baratillo, spurred new ideas about poverty, economic development, and sovereignty in Mexico and the Hispanic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I see it as a study that links economic ideas to on-the-ground economic practices and one that broadens my focus beyond Mexico City.

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

This semester I’m teaching Introduction to Latin American Civilization—my department’s one-semester survey of Latin American history. At first, the incredibly long time frame was a challenge (I begin the course discussing human migrations to the Americas during the last ice age and end with recent political developments in the region). But it’s actually become my favorite class to teach. I think it’s important for students to think about long-term patterns, something I deal with in my own research.

I’m also teaching a new class on Imperial Spain from the fifteenth century to the Spanish-American War of 1898. The idea behind the class is to put Spain’s interactions with Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Pacific Islanders into same frame of analysis. It covers a similar period as my course on Colonial Latin America, but it takes a global perspective. Teaching this class is helping me to conceptualize a new project that looks beyond Mexico to the broader Hispanic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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

On my shelf is Patricia Acerbi’s Street Occupations: Urban Vending in Rio de Janeiro, 1850-1925, which I’m eager to read. Along with Sandra Mendiola García’s recent book, Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico, and my own forthcoming book, we’ve had a surge of recent scholarship on street vending in Latin America, and that’s very exciting! I’m also looking forward to Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City, which comes out this spring.

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

I’d encourage them to think and read broadly about their topics, looking beyond their disciplines and outside their geographic areas of expertise. Some of the most helpful scholarship I read in writing my book was the social science literature on the informal economy and studies of street vending outside of Mexico and Latin America. I’d also push them to try to bring their research to a broader audience. We generally gear our first book toward specialists, but it’s also important to share our work with people outside the academy. From op/eds in the local paper to commentary in news magazines to articles in our schools’ alumni magazines, there are many opportunities to take our work to the public. And they might be surprised: in an era of short attention spans and rapid news cycles, there is a lot of demand for experts to provide historical context for present-day challenges.

What item sold at Mexico City’s thieves market would most surprise or delight The Metropole‘s readers? 

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

Member of the Week: Margaret O’Mara

OMara.pngMargaret O’Mara

Professor of History

University of Washington

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

I’m currently working on a book about the history of the American high-tech industry—from semiconductors to social media—and its relationship to the worlds of politics and finance. My interest and intent here is, to adapt a phrase, to “put the tech back in” to the study of modern American history, including urban history. Cities are among the many things that computer hardware and software have disrupted in the past half century—from the use of mainframes to run urban infrastructure and municipal services, to the personal computer’s transformation of workplaces, home life, and “third places,” to the role of social media in political mobilization, group identity, and sense of place. The high-tech revolution is rich and relatively underexplored territory, and as the PC reaches middle age and the smartphone approaches adolescence, it is ready for some serious historical analysis. I encourage other urban historians to join me!

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

I teach twentieth century political, economic, and urban history, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Every winter term—including this one—I teach my undergraduate survey course, “The City,” which covers North American urban history from New Amsterdam to the new economy. One of the joys of teaching this class is the wide variety of students who take it—engineering majors as well as history majors, freshmen to seniors, all drawn in by a curiosity about what makes cities work and how they’ve grown. Instead of a final paper, the students build a digital exhibition that uses the history of one Seattle city block to discuss broader patterns of urban change. The focus on the digital also allows me to introduce students to new scholarship and new scholarly voices, and to incorporate beyond-the-book digital platforms and sources like Mapping Inequality from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab and the urban visualizations built at the Spatial History Project at Stanford University.

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

I’m excited by the transnational turn in urban history, a good slice of which is represented in the edited volume published last year from Penn Press, Making Cities Global (full disclosure: I’m a contributor) and reflected in important recent books like Nancy Kwak, A Nation of Homeowners and N.D.B. Connolly, A World More Concrete. These and other works placing urban ideas and institutions in global and imperial context have had a significant impact on both my teaching and my research. Also, with tax reform in the news—and, as urban historians know, taxation is at the center of everything!—I’m gaining much from the recent crop of books giving tax policy and politics a deeper and more nuanced history, such as Isaac William Martin, Rich People’s Movements and Ajay Mehrotra, Making the Modern American Fiscal State.

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

One of the more refreshing trends in the profession today—call it the silver lining on the gloomy cloud of the academic job market—is that younger scholars are more willing and more able to practice history in public, whether by writing directly for public audiences, developing public history and digital history projects, or simply by being very good at Twitter. At a moment when “history” is so often wielded as a partisan weapon, it’s particularly important to have thoughtful and careful scholars out there engaging broad audiences. I encourage younger scholars to start thinking quite early about how they want to contribute to this conversation, how they delineate their scholarship and their activism, and how their scholarly expertise might translate to a broader scholarly community as well as to public audiences. Particularly good examples of this sort of careful, informed engagement can be found these days on the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog Black Perspectives, the Organization of American Historians’ Process: a blog for American History, and the online and print editions of the Boston Review, all of which are on my regular reading list.

You are the lead curatorial advisor to the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). What have been some of the highlights of serving in that capacity?

My work at the Bezos Center at MOHAI was a lightning-fast education in public history, and in the art and science of historical museums in particular. Creating an effective museum exhibit is a team sport involving players with a wide range of expertise, from my team of History PhD researchers to the to visionary architects and graphic designers who turned our research into words on a wall to the lighting maestros who set the mood and feel for the experience. It was also was an eye-opening lesson in how a well-designed museum experience can reach and educate so many different people, including those who don’t see themselves as “history people.” I also love that a future-tense business leader like Jeff Bezos has such an appreciation for the past—I hope other tech leaders will embark on their own philanthropic efforts to support history education and scholarship.