Tag Archives: New York City

Fiscal Fright in NYC: A Review of Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics

Kim Phillips-Fein. Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017. 417pp. $9.98. (Paperback) 
Review by Michael R. Glass

By 1965, a $255 million gap had opened in the New York City budget. To cover the city’s operating expenses, Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. decided to “borrow now, repay later.” After all, he reasoned, “a good loan is better than a bad tax.” His successors, John Lindsay and Abraham Beame, made the same choice. Each mayor turned to short-term loans with the hope that additional tax revenues or federal aid would materialize. They did not. In the spring of 1975, the banks refused to purchase the next round of bond issuances, citing concerns that the city had exceeded its constitutional debt limit. The country’s largest metropolis teetered on the edge of default. Kim Phillips-Fein recounts these events and the social conflicts that followed in Fear City. The result is a magisterial account of the New York City fiscal crisis.

 

Although critics would attribute the city’s fiscal woes to profligate spending, Phillips-Fein argues that the budget gap was the product of several interlocking structural processes. Deindustrialization steadily undercut the city’s economic foundation, as manufacturers shifted their operations to southern states and then abroad. Federal housing and highway policies siphoned middle-class white residents to the suburbs, depriving the city of their tax receipts. And while the federal government briefly injected additional resources during the War on Poverty, the Nixon and Ford administrations shrank the funding for those programs. City officials were left the stewards of a robust public sector that included tuition-free universities, municipal hospitals, and inexpensive subways, but it all rested upon a dwindling tax base. They plugged the gaps with loans upon loans until the day of reckoning eventually arrived.

40519r.jpg
Three boys with tough expressions smoking cigarettes, photograph by Bill Cunningham, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Sophisticated in its methodology, Fear City tells the story of the ensuing crisis from multiple vantage points. The middle chapters focus on the negotiations over bond sales and the terms of a possible aid package from Washington. These meetings triggered a process of elite class formation that brought together investment bankers, corporate executives, and real estate magnates; the crisis “made these upper echelons look to each other.”   As officials begged for their investment, these elites demanded layoffs, service cuts, and tax abatements in return. The last section shifts attention to the communities and institutions hardest hit by austerity and the activists who rallied in their defense. Weaving together multiple archives and toggling between scales, Fear City narrates the crisis from both above and below.

3f05880r.jpg
Albert Shanker, Pres of U.F.T. holds report issued by mediators to Mayor Robert Wagner that helped to stop strike threat of teacher, photo by Walter Albertin, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What emerges from these divergent perspectives is a crisis that unfolded along competing time horizons. For the members of the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC), the agency created to market long-term bonds on behalf of the city, the crisis was a week-to-week scramble to locate investors for the next bond sale. With a deadline looming, for instance, power brokers convinced Albert Shanker, head of the city teachers’ union, to purchase MAC bonds with the teachers’ pension funds after an all-night conversation in his apartment. The union bailout rescued the city hours before it would have declared bankruptcy. For Mayor Abraham Beame and Governor Hugh Carey, who shuttled between meetings at the White House and Capitol Hill in search of aid from tightfisted officials, the fiscal crisis was a succession of deadlines, meetings, and fraught negotiations.

 

Ordinary residents, meanwhile, experienced service reductions in both moments of intense drama and protracted struggles. During the first round of budget cuts, garbage piled up in the streets, class sizes swelled in the schools, and hundreds of laid-off police officers blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. At Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, students barricaded themselves inside the building for several weeks to prevent its closure. Residents of Williamsburg kept their local firehouse open by occupying it for sixteen months straight, dubbing it the “People’s Firehouse.” Although the city nominally ended the crisis when it re-entered the bond market on its own accord in 1979, many services that had been eliminated were never restored, and rates of poverty, drug addiction, and crime all spiked over the next decade.

05493r.jpg
African American parishioners arriving at Harlem – Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, photograph by Marilyn Nance, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ultimately, the fiscal crisis fundamentally transformed the city. The budget cuts shrank the scope of the public sector, diminishing not only the level of city services but also citizen expectations of government. The years-long specter of default created what Phillips-Fein calls “the politics of inevitability,” which made alternatives to austerity seem nonexistent. To be sure, New York still maintains a comparatively expansive array of public goods: its subway system, while perennially underfunded and marred by constant delays, remains public and viable; its city university system, while no longer tuition-free, remains fairly affordable. At the same time, officials preserve these services by catering to the corporate executives, white-collar professionals, and tourists that now drive the city’s economy, and they court capital investment through public-private partnerships and tax subsidies. Fiscal discipline, efficiency, and private initiative have become the guiding principles of urban governance.

9780805095258_p0_v4_s600x595.jpgWhile Fear City reads as an origin tale for our current age of inequality, historians would do well to project the fiscal crisis backwards as well as forwards. A question that the book raises, but never fully answers, is how a small number of bankers could bring the entire city to its knees by simply refusing a loan. Phillips-Fein claims that city leaders repeatedly “turned to debt” to evade divisive political debates. Mayors certainly used loans to kick the can down the road, but cities had also depended on other debt instruments in the twentieth century. The literal foundation of the modern metropolis—its roads, bridges, and sewers—had been financed, chiefly, with municipal bonds. With each transaction that financiers brokered, they accrued additional power, and when cities ran up deficits, they proved willing to offer additional loans. By the 1970s, American cities (and suburbs and towns) had become dependent on the support of private financiers to deliver public services—both for the long-term bonds that financed the infrastructure and for the short-term loans that plugged the gaps. In other words, the fiscal crisis did not create the dependence on financiers; rather, it revealed the dependence that had been growing for decades.

Phillips-Fein’s comprehensive account opens new avenues of inquiry for other scholars. By framing the fiscal crisis as a monumental turning point, Fear City asks urban historians to chart the fate of cities under the austerity regimes that arose in the late twentieth century, as well as how decades of “borrow now, repay later” had led cities up to the fiscal cliff.

Featured image (at top): New York City Skyline, Charles and Ray Eames, circa 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Mike Glass is a Ph.D. Candidate in US History at Princeton University. His dissertation explores the history of school finance in suburban Long Island during the postwar era. 

Book Review: John Strausbaugh’s Victory City

Strausbaugh, John. Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers during World War II. (New York: Twelve, 2018). 497pp. $30. ISBN 1455567485

Reviewed by Michael L. Levine

Victory City tells what it was like to live in New York during the Great Depression and World War II. The book may not break new scholarly ground, but it succeeds admirably in bringing a time and place to life and as such can serve as an inviting introduction to students for whom the New Deal and World War II may seem quite remote. Students today are as far removed from the New Deal as those in the thirties were from the Mexican War.

Reading Victory City is a bit like coming across a yellowing newspaper in an old trunk. In that regard John Strausbaugh exercises a deft touch in selecting compelling details. Consider:   During the Depression three out of ten Brooklyn doctors lost phone service for nonpayment of bills. Doctors, mind you! How did ordinary families get by? Meanwhile some of New York’s largest corporations and banks got by– hedging their bets by investing in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy

8d21935r
New York, New York. Sidewalk merchant in the Jewish section, Marjory Collins, August 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

We are reminded that during the thirties and forties New York was home as almost no place else to tremendous concentrations of a wide range of ethnic groups. Of particular interest is Strausbaugh’s take on the world’s largest Jewish city. When it came to political confidence in the thirties and forties, the Jewish population in New York seemed less assertive and more uncertain than we might imagine. To retaliate for Hitler’s boycott of Jewish shops in Germany, Jewish New Yorkers called for a boycott of German-owned stores, including Macy’s. Although Macy’s was owned by the Strauses, a Jewish family, it had emigrated from Germany.

Along these lines consider that Arthur Sulzberger, an assimilated Jew, didn’t want his family’s paper, The New York Times, to be seen as Jewish. So, in the thirties, the paper “methodically,” to use Strausbaugh’s words, downplayed news about the persecution of Jews in Europe. Other American Jewish leaders also hesitated to speak out in favor of admitting Jewish refugees for fear of rousing the country’s many anti-Semites. During World War II Washington’s policy toward European Jews was based on the idea that a more aggressive effort to save the Jews from the Nazis would make it appear that the conflict was “a war for the Jews,” in which case Americans would be less willing to make sacrifices.

Hitler Street in Long Island
From The Atlantic: This “Adolf Hitler Strasse” is a street running through “Camp Siegfried,” a summer camp of the German American Bund in Yaphank, Long Island, New York, Bettman Archive, Getty

Strausbaugh also reminds us that while New York was a center of Jewry, it was also very much a German city. New Yorkers of German ancestry (numbering three quarters of million) may not have mostly been pro-Hitler, but Nazism unashamedly maintained a conspicuous presence throughout the metropolitan area. In the thirties, Fritz Kuhn’s German American Bund ran a summer camp on Long Island where youngsters uniformed like Hitler youth marched up and down streets named for Hitler, Goring and Goebbels. On German Day in 1938, the camp drew 40,000 visitors along with 2,000 Storm Trooper guards. The Long Island Railroad thoughtfully obliged by running a Camp Siegfried Special. In 1939 the Bund drew 22,000 to a rally at Madison Square Garden.

22feat_uniform
World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at https://www.thecoli.com/threads/ww2-era-harlem-pics.209216/

Strausbaugh points out that FDR drew the best and brightest—disproportionately New Yorkers—to Washington. If FDR was less concerned with an employee’s religion, gender and race than previous presidents, then some measure of credit must be given to his enlightened First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. These were the years when appreciative African Americans abandoned Lincoln’s GOP for the New Deal. But Strausbaugh points out that all was not well in the matter of race relations even in progressive Gotham. The 1943 Harlem Riots reflected the city’s oppressive and discriminatory housing and employment practices which made life for Africans Americans so difficult to endure.

A caution: Victory City may prove disconcerting at a time when “enemy of the people,” a vicious slogan calling to mind the brutal authoritarianism of the thirties, now finds renewed currency. When it comes to protecting civil rights and civil liberties—on guard!

Michael L. Levine holds a doctorate in American history from Rutgers. A long-time freelance editor and writer, he has staffed the A. Philip Randolph Institute and has served as editor-in-chief of National Productivity Review and as Associate Editor of Political Profiles, a multi-volume series featuring biographies of contemporary political leaders.

 Featured image (a top): World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at https://www.thecoli.com/threads/ww2-era-harlem-pics.209216/.

 

 

Member of the Week: Michael Glass

mglassMichael Glass

Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton University

@m_r_glass

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

As a former New York City high school teacher, I’ve long been interested in educational inequality. For my M.A. thesis, I studied the 1950s school desegregation movement in Harlem, portions of which were recently published in the JUH. But two events really shifted my thinking as I was entering graduate school. First, in the wake of the uprising in Ferguson, the DOJ report revealed that Ferguson police officers had become de facto tax collectors, and black residents a prime revenue source. Second, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 2014, reports showed growing segregation in suburban school districts, especially in nearby Long Island. Both flatly contradicted the dominant narrative that all suburbs are uniformly prosperous. My hunch, as an aspiring historian, was that both reflected long-term processes rather than recent developments.

So, I turned my attention from New York City to its suburbs. My dissertation, “Schooling Suburbia: The Politics of School Finance in Postwar Long Island,” examines conflicts over school funding and school segregation in the decades after World War II. Like Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire, I follow the money to explore the interaction of public education, property markets, and state and local politics in seven different Long Island districts. To do so, I have had to teach myself about a number of complex institutions—from zoning ordinances to mortgage finance, municipal bonds to property assessment, budget referenda to teacher salaries. My goal is to show how ordinary folks experienced and shaped these structural processes. I also focus on several key political episodes, including school desegregation movements, policy debates over state aid, and school finance lawsuits. In short, I trace how American suburbs have become so segregated and unequal, as well as recover the political campaigns that have challenged those inequalities.

 

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

I am actually not teaching at the moment. I have a fellowship this year, which has allowed me to focus exclusively on research and writing. With the time and space to reflect, I’ve been doing some reading on pedagogy. Thanks to the simple rules from Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet, I’m trying to whip my prose into shape, and hopefully I’ll be able to pass those lessons along to students. John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write has helped me brainstorm more authentic writing assignments. And Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History makes the case for the importance of teaching historical thinking in the Age of Fake News. However, I must say: I really do miss the energy of being in the classroom!

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

My stack of unread books seems to always be growing. I just finished Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education and I absolutely loved how she connects the long history of black education politics to the present conjuncture [Editor: you can read Breland’s own Member of the Week interview]. Jeanne Theoharis’s A More Beautiful and Terrible History is a must-read synthesis of new work on the civil rights movement. In their recent article on the HOLC, Todd Michney and LaDale Winling present staggering findings about its early lending practices. Pedro Regalado’s article on the anti-policing activism of Dominican New Yorkers looks fascinating, though I haven’t gotten to it yet. Finally, I have Fault Lines by Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer queued up as my next nightstand book—but I won’t get to it until I finish These Truths by Jill Lepore. (I’ve been reading Lepore before bed for a couple of months and I’m still only in the Progressive Era.)

As for forthcoming work, I cannot wait for Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book on the 1970s FHA scandals; Kara Schlichting’s book on coastlines, waterways, and parks in metropolitan New York City; Nick Juravich’s book on paraprofessionals; Paige Glotzer’s book on the transnational origins of segregated suburbs; Natalia Petrezela’s book on the rise of fitness culture; Tim Keogh’s book on work, housing, and segregation in Long Island; Destin Jenkins’s book on municipal bonds; and Dylan Gottlieb’s article on yuppy-fueled arson-for-profit in Hoboken. [Editor: also check out Kara and Dylan‘s Member of the Week posts.]

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

In my opinion, one of the great strengths of urban history is the shared commitment to the depiction of place. New York is not Chicago, Detroit is not Los Angeles—and we, as urban historians, are better than anyone at explaining why. My advice, though, would be to cast a wide net in thinking about how to depict a place. Sure, one must start with the classics of urban history. But I have also learned a lot from other mediums. For instance, certain television shows—like Breaking Bad or Sharp Objectscan render a place with a single camera shot honed in on a telling detail. Or fiction writers, who, let’s be honest, are much better at this than we are. I recently read Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward and after just a couple of pages I felt the texture of her hometown in Mississippi. Television, journalism, fiction: urban historians have a lot to learn from fellow storytellers.

You have taught college courses at the Southwoods State Prison through Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative. What about that experience made the biggest impression on you?

Teaching in a prison was incredible and I would recommend it to anyone. The students were curious, diligent, and full of insights. It was also a profoundly humbling experience. For example, the first class was on Reconstruction, as this was the second half of the survey, from 1865 to the present. My co-teachers and I walked in with a copy of the required textbook, Eric Foner’s Give Me Freedom, and slapped it on the desk: “So…freedom?” It was like a scene out of a bad teaching movie, except without any background music or ensuing montage. Despite the initial awkwardness, however, many of the challenges proved similar to teaching elsewhere, particularly with writing. The students were overflowing with ideas, but it took a lot of work to help them organize their ideas into coherent, analytical arguments. Overall, the best part for me was the reciprocal exchange during classroom discussions. Many of the students were twice my age with a lifetime of wisdom and I learned a great deal from them.

Member of the Week: Kara Murphy Schlichting

img_4194Kara Murphy Schlichting

Assistant Professor of History

Queens College, City University of New York

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

I thought I would be an environmental historian of the American West, particularly the Utah desert (really).  But my first year in graduate school at Rutgers reinforced to me that environment was also everyday and urban.  And there I was living in New York, jogging along the East River on the narrow path between the ConEd plant and the FDR drive.  I ended up researching how the characteristics of the coastal environment of the East River and Long Island Sound shaped urbanization and, in turn, the environmental change wrought by regional growth in metropolitan New York.  My first book New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore is forthcoming this spring with the University of Chicago Press.  This book examines the city’s geographic edges—the coastlines and waterways—and the small-time unelected locals and residents who quietly but indelibly shaped the modern city alongside power brokers like Robert Moses. It challenges the idea that urbanization is always a linear progression and that growth is always directed by central planners and government officials.  Ordinary citizens (like joggers in waterfront parks!) also played a role.

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

Besides the US survey, I teach courses on the history of New York City and the history of Queens and the outer boroughs. My forthcoming book grew from the question “what does the history of the city look like if we get off Manhattan, stop obsessing about the powerbrokers of city hall, and look at the people and spaces of the periphery?” Manhattan is only 7% of the city.  There is so much more to discover, and my outer boroughs research class encourages students to dig into this history.  This spring I am teaching a new urban environmental history seminar, which looks at cities nationwide.  I believe that urban history is inherently about environment–an idea I look forward to pitching to the students in my senior seminar this spring.

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

I have a continually growing list of publications I am looking forward to from 2018 alone. I just got a copy of Karen Routledge’s Do You See Ice? Inuit and Americans at Home and Away and ordered Andrew Kahrl’s Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline. I am also on the waitlist for Joanna B. Freeman’s The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. I am not a historian of antebellum America, but it is one of my favorite eras to read about.

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

I would say read widely. This is advice I also give myself. There is so much to be read about New York that I could never read a history of anything besides the city I live in and research and teach about. But then I would miss the smart work underway (and on display at the UHA this past fall) on cities like Hamburg, with its growing storm surge concerns, or the problems of made land in San Francisco, two topics that are also crucial to New York City’s history. We all have very specific research agendas, but that research benefits from creative, comparative thinking.

Your research interests center on shorelines and waterfronts. When vacation time rolls around, are you a beach enthusiast or do you run for the hills? 

I am mystified that this is even a choice for people. The shore always wins for me. I have family in Rhode Island which has wide sandy beaches, I grew up on Long Island Sound’s rocky shores, and I live three blocks from the East River in Brooklyn, which has derelict piers and fancy new parks. I love them all equally, in any weather.

Member of the Week: Matthew Guariglia

39310556_10213341790634339_3231092978973933568_oMatthew Guariglia

Ph.D. Candidate in History

University of Connecticut

@mguariglia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busting Out in WWII-Era Brooklyn

This piece by Emily Brooks is the first entrant into the Second Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We we invited graduate students to submit essays on theme of “Striking Gold,” whether lucre or archival treasures. Brooks’ interpretation of the theme hews to the latter, and she uses a memo discovered on a reel of micofilm to unspool a dramatic, cinematic story.

The nail file was a gift. Whether it belonged to Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, or Jean we will never know. What we do know, however, is that one of these 14 and 15-year-old girls acquired the file while on trial for juvenile delinquency at the Manhattan Children’s court in July 1944. This young woman then brought the nail file with her to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s Brooklyn shelter where the five white girls were imprisoned during the heat wave of early August 1944.[1]

8b00813r
The four freedoms. Step right up folks, for the greatest ride in the world …“, Alfred T. Palmer, between 1941-1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For these young incarcerated women, the nail file presented an opportunity. On the night of August 8, the five prisoners used the manicure file to scrape through a brass padlock securing the window in their dormitory. Once they had dispatched the lock, the girls crawled through the window and up a fire escape to access the roof of the building, carrying their bed sheets along. After reaching the roof, they knotted the sheets together and climbed down onto the roof of the Children’s Court building next door. The girls successfully evaded the court building’s custodian as he raised the flag on the roof the next morning, before escaping down the stairs and fleeing onto the street. They hailed a cab, despite lacking shoes and wearing white shelter uniforms. The quick-thinking young women informed the taxi driver that their clothing had been stolen while they were at Coney Island, and directed the driver to the apartment of a boyfriend on Madison Avenue.[2]

Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean’s dramatic escape created a number of public relations problems for New York City’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine, and officials in the city’s court and police systems. The escape challenged the power of the state to control the behavior of young women during World War II, and forced city officials to reframe discussions around the necessity of this control. The superintendent of the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children drafted a document for the head judge of the city’s Domestic Relations Court, innocuously-entitled “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944,” which detailed the event and its subsequent irritations.[3]

3c32498r
Mayor La Guardia speaks over WNYC on Grade A milk from Budget Room / World-Telegram photo by Fred Palumbo“, March 23, 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Decades later, during another hot New York City summer, I found this memo on one of the hundreds of microfilm rolls dedicated to Mayor La Guardia’s records at the city’s Municipal Archives. I came upon the document, as well as a number of letters related to the escape, while performing research for my dissertation on the activities of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) during World War II. Exploring histories of policing in New York City presents challenges for historians since the NYPD often declines to share records with researchers, and sometimes even “misplaces” them.[4] Those records that do exist can provide insight into official police policies, but evaluating the impact of such policies or finding resistance to them can prove more elusive. The “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter” provides a rare glimpse into the lives of five teenagers affected by the NYD’s wartime campaigns against juvenile delinquency, and an illustration of how they sought to resist this type of surveillance.

During the war, although the overall number of police officers decreased as men joined the military, young women came under increasing surveillance from the NYPD. Officers monitored the city’s streets, particularly around hubs of entertainment and transit, searching for teenage girls like the escapees. Once arrested, many of these young women shared the fate of Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean, whose offenses included staying out late and spending time with older men.[5] Girls had socialized with men throughout the twentieth century, sometimes coming into conflict with their parents and the state because of it.[6] For many women of all ages, however, World War II, introduced new employment opportunities, and for some young women the war brought reduced parental supervision. As a number of historians have documented, new sexual possibilities and anxieties emerged along with the economic and social disruptions of war.[7] Historian Amanda Littauer has argued convincingly young people seized on these opportunities to engage in premarital sex at higher rates than their prewar counterparts.[8]

3b48917r.jpg
Cure juvenile delinquency in the slums by planned housing“, Federal Art Project, 1935, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

At the same time as teenagers like the escapees explored new social and sexual freedoms, Valentine and La Guardia called for intensified NYPD campaigns against prostitution, juvenile delinquency, and other crimes of “vice.” New York City’s leaders, responding in part to federal demands to monitor Americans during wartime, framed policing Gotham as an essential part of the war effort. [9] The NYPD needed, officials argued, to protect enlisted men from sexually transmitted infections and to maintain “order” in an increasingly interracial wartime city. Throughout the war, the department’s campaigns against juvenile delinquency focused on arresting boys of color for supposed crimes of minor violence or theft, and monitoring young women of all races for inappropriate social or sexual activities.[10] In the case of young women, officials argued that monitoring their behavior and incarcerating them for violations served to protect both arrestees themselves and their male potential sexual partners.[11]

Although officials held that Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean’s disappearance endangered both the young shoeless women, and their potential male paramours, interactions between the state and Estelle’s mother following the incident belied this claim. Estelle’s mother, Elisabeth, visited the office of the society that ran the shelter to seek more information about her daughter’s escape. The superintendent described Elisabeth as “belligerent” and “a high-strung, nervous person.” The shelter’s representatives reminded Elisabeth multiple times that her own daughter and the other girls had run away from home before. The officials argued, therefore, that “nothing too serious could happen to her at this point beyond what has already happened to her.” Elisabeth returned the next day, seeking more answers. She asked for her daughter’s possessions and inquired how it had been possible for the young women to flee without shoes or street clothing. The superintendent lamented that by the end of her second visit Elisabeth had become “extremely suspicious and doubtful about the good faith of the representatives of the Society.”[12] Estelle’s mother also lodged complaints with members of the NYPD and the mayor. The mayor expressed limited concern, proclaiming that “when five girls use such extreme means to escape, it is almost impossible to restrain them.”[13] The dismissive responses to Elisabeth’s anxiety about the whereabouts of her daughter demonstrated by the representatives of Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Mayor La Guardia suggest that the protection of teenage girls was not the paramount concern of these city officials. The city seemed more concerned with controlling “all the female problems we have prowling the streets today,” as Police Commissioner Valentine had articulated a few months before the escape.[14]

5a05246r
Collier’s House at PEDAC, New York City. Girl’s room I“, Gottscho-Schlesnier, Inc., 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What did Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean gain by fleeing the shelter’s confines to “prowl” the city’s streets? They gained freedom from the control of shelter employees and their families, as well as unsupervised access to the city, which they used to visit Harlem and Coney Island, among other places. What this freedom meant to the girls is difficult to say. For Jean, who lived with a foster family in New Jersey, it may have meant unrestricted access to the excitements of New York City. For Estelle, who sought out a boyfriend at Floyd Bennet Field in southeastern Brooklyn, perhaps these few days provided an opportunity to continue a prohibited relationship. For Margaret, who was the oldest of four in a working-class family, maybe the escape was a respite from familial responsibilities.[15] The “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944,” provides a small window into a few days in the lives of five of the young women that police, court, and political leaders deemed so threating to the health of the city and nation in wartime. The details of their escape suggest that whatever a few days of unsupervised free time in the city meant to these young women, they went to great lengths to attain it.

Featured image (at top): Eggers & Higgins, 542 5th Ave., New York City. Six girls, Gottscho-Schlesnier, Inc., 1946, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Brooksheadshot

Emily Brooks is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Policy History, processhistory.org, and the gothamcenter.org. She is currently working on a dissertation about anti-vice policing in New York City during World War II. 

 

[1] “4 Year Heat Record Set at 96.3” New York Times, August 5, 1944, 1. Throughout this piece I will use first names only to protect the identities of the young women and their families.

[2] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joseph Goldstein, “Old New York Police Surveillance is Found, Forcing Big Brother Out of Hiding” New York Times, June 16, 2016.

[5] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[6] For discussions of the policing of young women in progressive-era New York see Cheryl Hicks, Talk with you like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) and Ruth Alexander, The “Girl Problem”: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995). For more on the development of juvenile delinquency laws governing girls see Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the Unites States, 1885-1920, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[7] John D’Emilio Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: The Free Press, 1990); Leisa D. Meyer Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[8] Amanda Littauer, Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion Before the 1960s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 19-20.

[9] For examples of how officials handled these federal demands and wartime exigencies in Virginia see Pippa Holloway, Sexuality, Politics and Social Control in Virginia, 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), particularly chapters 6 and 7.

[10] Luis Alvarez uses the zoot suit as a lens through which to explore racialized policing of youth during WWII in The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II (Oakland: University of California Press, 2009). Clarence Tayler discusses the efforts of the city’s Teacher’s Union to defend African American boys targeted by the police in Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York City: Fordham University Press, 2011), particularly chapter 1 “To Be a Good American: The New York City Teacher’s Union and Race during the Second World War.”

[11] For a discussion about federal support for criminalization of female sexuality during the war see Marilyn Hegarty, Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II (New York City: NYU Press, 2007) and for the different ways that women’s sexuality was mobilized for the war effort see Megan K. Winchell, Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[12] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[13] From Mayor LaGuardia to Mrs. Elisabeth, August 14, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[14] “Mayor Asks More Help for Wayward Girl,” New York Times, May 26, 1944, 12.

[15] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37. Information on Margaret’s family from 1940 Census, accessed on ancestry.com, July 24, 2018.

 

 

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.

3b20721r.jpg
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.

3b41928r.jpg
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.

3c38872r
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.

3c27666v
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).

3c10970v
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).

11683r
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: 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.

4a19431r.jpg
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.

4a19432r
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.

4a10195r.jpg
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

Member of the Week: Joseph Watson

watsonJoseph Watson

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

University of Pennsylvania School of Design

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Kim Phillips-Fein

Gallatin HeadshotKim Phillips-Fein

Associate Professor

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

New York University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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