Tag Archives: Public History

Digital Summer School: Gotham

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you hope people take away from it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Summer School: Tropics of Meta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What do you hope people take away from it?

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

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

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

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

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

 Where do you hope it goes in the future?

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

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Playing Cards for “The Other Football” project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Cynthia Heider

meCynthia Heider

M.A. Student in Public History, Temple University

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

@comebackcities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Alan Lessoff

Lessoff at ND, TW photo, Oct 16Alan Lessoff

University Professor of History

Illinois State University

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

I’m in the middle of two projects. The first is an exhibition and book project undertaken with the McLean County Museum of History, an exemplary regional museum in this part of Illinois. The theme is unbuilt buildings and failed and defeated plans and development projects. A lot of large cities in the United States and elsewhere have had exhibition and publishing projects on the theme of the Unbuilt City. They are often gorgeous–because of all the renderings, charts, and models–and they invite imagination of all sorts of possibilities, negative as well as positive. They also draw people into a discussion of how groups of residents in the past understood and argued about their city and its problems and potential. As far as we can tell, this is the first time a mid-sized city has tried an Unbuilt City exhibit. Given the nature of planning and development in mid-sized cities, this invites a discussion of the state-of-the-art professional advice–the contemporary best practice–that planning consultants and architects have over time diffused from larger cities to regional and secondary metropolises and how that diffusion shaped cities everywhere.

My other current project is a pair of essays about how Europeans became aware of American debates over urban machine politics, focusing on James Bryce (whom I wrote about in the past) along with William T. Stead and Mosei Ostrogorski. This is part of an international project about urban politics and corruption that I’ve worked with off and on for about a decade. In general, Europeans tried to distance themselves from the idea that mass party politics could bring urban political machines to European cities, but there was also the counter-notion this might become another menacing form of Americanization, that European cities could become “Chicagos,” as contemporaries at times put it.

This is pretty typical for me over the past two decades–my urban history goes in a public and regional history direction, but I also try to keep going with more conventional, analytical work.

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

Once a year, I teach a senior/graduate course on U.S. urban history that includes a segment in conjunction with the McLean County Museum that we have devised to involve students with urban history archives, how they are organized, and how one can work with them. Given where we are in Central Illinois, I use works like Ann Keating, Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age, and Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, to encourage students to have a geographic and visual sense of the urban region. Keating’s Chicagoland is especially inspiring. I use it as the basis for a project in which students are meant to take photographs of their hometown or neighborhood and consider how a place they think of as familiar might fit into the regional patterns that Keating lays out and how they might be able to see previously unseen history in their own towns.

I also teach a senior research seminar on comparative urban history, as well as an MA-level seminar in local and public history methods. Last summer, I had the chance to try out a version of this seminar at the Bielefeld University Graduate School for History and Sociology, using historical museums and sites in that section of Westphalia. Public history draws us to the local wherever we are, but we can readily conceive of it in transnational and comparative ways as well. (This is not an original thought by any means.) And right now, I’m trying a new MA seminar on the United States in Transnational Perspective, which encourages big thinking among students about urban networks and urban environmental history. I also oversee our internship program and our small urban studies minor. Overall, my teaching these days amounts a pretty good arrangement for someone who does what we do–it runs the gamut from the most hands-on to the most interpretive.

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

A short while back, I read a clear, detailed book by a University of Chicago urban studies scholar, Chad Broughton, Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). It’s a vivid account of the people swept up in both places when the Maytag plant moved in the early 2000s from Galesburg, Illinois, to Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. This book gives me ways to connect my earlier writing about South Texas to my current research on Central Illinois–he does a great job with one of the most relevant subjects one can imagine.

I love the way that Benjamin H. Johnson’s new book, Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), draws upon all the recent work in urban environmental history to create a new general narrative of the conservation movement.

One of the next books on my to-read shelf is Daniel Czitrom, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), about the Lexow Investigation of 1894. I feel that our current debates about abusive policing help us better to understand why contemporaries in the late 1800s saw machine politics as so unsavory and oppressive.  Understanding police racketeering should offset any romance we might still have with the image of good-hearted ward bosses.

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

To stay engaged with their places and the physical and local aspect of urban history work, even through all the anxiety and uncertainty of trying to become established professionally. We’re fortunate to have a field that enables us so readily to connect with the places where we happen to be, and that helps to some degree to keep us alive intellectually through the periods when one feels so unsettled and therefore so driven to live in one’s head and in one’s CV. All those places will accumulate and will be a tremendous resource later on.

You’ve written a history of Corpus Christi, Texas. What’s a surprising fact about the city that neither urbanists nor residents likely know?

Because of its name and location, people imagine Corpus Christi to manifest the Spanish and Mexican presence in South Texas that was overwhelmed by Anglo American conquest and colonization. In reality it shares more with Houston and other Anglo American urban foundations along the Texas coast, in that it began as an Anglo American outpost and gateway into what’s now southern Texas and the Borderlands, a launching point for the extension of Anglo American commercial and political networks and environmental transformation into what had formerly been a Spanish and Mexican frontier region. Anglo American civil engineering reshaped a shallow bay on the edge of an arid plain and with a hurricane-prone coast into a practical-enough site for urbanization geared into U.S. urban systems. The Spanish heritage, Mission Revival design, and ranger and pioneer lore that still dominate regional historical and visual identity can overshadow this more modern story of regional development for commercial agriculture, labor exploitation, and resource extraction. The main theme of my book was the tense interplay between those older regional epics and lore and an urban character, layout, and culture shaped by railroad- and petrochemical-era Texas.

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

By Sonia Gollance and Joel Berkowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Vince Furlong

VFtourleader2015

Vince Furlong

Tour Coordinator and Guide, and Volunteer

Restoration Exchange Omaha

http://www.restorationexchange.org

Describe your day job. How does it intersect with urban history?

I am mostly retired and did have 17 years as a teacher in my early days – Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and the Omaha metro.

You lead guided tours of Omaha. How did you get into doing that? Give us a sense for the tours!

About 20 years ago, I had space to consider what I might want to do at age 60 plus. I ran a self-initiated forum discussing the question – how do we want Omaha to grow? Several folks suggested a rebirth of Omaha’s historic neighborhood commercial districts. I was encouraged to look at the National Trust’s Main Street program. So, I tried to introduce the Main Street program here, but local government said “we are already doing this” and local business and neighborhoods oozed apathy. So, I began doing the tours of a couple districts myself.

Our La Veinticuatro tour of the South Omaha 24th Street Historic Main Street highlights an area that grew up in the Omaha stockyards/meatpacking satellite city from 1887-1970s and now is the heart of the Latino population. The Deuce tour of the 24th and Lake historic district emphasizes black musical heritage and local civil rights actions from 1920-1970. Finally, our Historic Vinton Street Commercial District tour stresses a unique street angle and interesting architecture that grew around it.

History is just part of each tour as we also look at the arts vibe in each area, ethnic influences, architecture, revitalization efforts…. Our main tourist clientele are students first grade to grad school.

What recent or forthcoming urban history books are you excited about?

My daughter recently gave me a hardback copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, so I have been re-reading selected areas.

What advice do you have for scholars of urban history who want to share history with their communities?

  1. Start doing it.
  2. Keep doing it.
  3. Show some passion.
  4. Keep adding tidbits of info.
  5. Do not be too scholarly.

What’s the best question you have been asked while giving a tour?

The best question for me while I was walking the streets doing the research was “Hey, Vince, why are you doing this?” Also, I always like “Que pasa?”

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.

Member of the Week: Valerie Paley

V PALEY COLORValerie Paley, Ph.D.

Vice President and Chief Historian, New-York Historical Society

Director, Center for Women’s History

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

As a public historian working at New York City’s oldest museum, I find that my day job keeps me nimble where research is concerned. Just recently, I studied up on Radio City for an interview about its 85th anniversary with the New York Times. That same week I spent a day or two charting the evolution of Christmas and the holidays in New York for a live satellite radio broadcast with Cardinal Dolan. At this moment I’m fact-checking and editing the text labels for an exhibition of historic shoes called Walk This Way, set to open at New-York Historical’s Center for Women’s History in the spring. It’s my responsibility to ensure that all of this content for general audiences maintains a scholarly underpinning. I am fortunate to have an extraordinarily smart team of doctoral-level historians helping to keep me honest and on deadline with these varied tasks.

But I do value the hours I manage to spend doing sustained work by myself with my own scholarship on the founding in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of what would become some of the most famous cultural institutions of New York City. The New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Metropolitan Museum began as ambitious private projects for the public good and evolved into significant standard bearers not only for the city, but for the nation. I’ve pursued a research thread that places the main responsibility for these endeavors not with the directors or curators, but with their funders and founders. Their mark—bearing grander aspirations for their nascent institutions and, by extension, the character of their emerging metropolis—is still in evidence today. As a born-and-bred Manhattanite, I’ve always been drawn to the culture of the city in its entirety, and consider it almost a guilty pleasure to be able to legitimately spend time researching it for scholarly purposes.

Describe your current administrative, curatorial, and/or public history work. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

I greatly value the skills and knowledge I gained in the academy, but nothing I encountered there could have prepared me for the kind of work that I currently do in the name of History. I have been engaged over the past couple of years in both the administrative and programmatic activities of establishing a Center for Women’s History under the umbrella of the New-York Historical Society. It requires me to think broadly about bringing women’s history into the larger narrative of American history as we convey it through educational and scholarly programming, public lectures, a yearly day-long conference, collecting, research, and a film, in addition to the expected exhibitions. This in turn extends to imparting this vision to our visitors, with my team of scholarly fellows and in collaboration with our CEO and board, and other colleagues like K-12 educators, librarians, art curators, exhibition designers, and members of our communications and fundraising departments.

I’m not sure how directly this relates to my own scholarship, other than by providing me with a framework for understanding the moving parts that make a museum function successfully “on the ground.” The theoretical texts which Museum Studies scholars write and read are all well and good intellectually, in a perfect world. But the challenges and choices I face daily actually working in a museum require me to be far more pragmatic in my approach. There is a struggle to be “pure” while heeding the necessity of being engaging to the public—not to mention getting the funds to make it all happen.

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

No doubt about it: I’ve anticipated Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham as much as any other New York City history junkie. (In fact I was somewhat happy to come down with the flu last week so I could spend some extended untethered time reading it.) Wallace’s ability to harness the scale and variety of the growth of the city in the early twentieth century while capturing it in such painstaking detail is breathtaking. I also commend his capacity to be a great “crossover” historian that can create significant work that resonates for the general public.

The towering achievement of Mike Wallace with Greater Gotham makes me wonder with anticipation about when the other pillar of New York City history, Kenneth T. Jackson, will finally finish his new works on the late twentieth-century progression of suburbia and the current urban condition.

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

I offer the same advice I give to PhD-level historians: don’t be rigid or unimaginative about where the PhD can take you. There is a need for sophisticated content and critical thinking skills outside the academy. In fact, there is probably even more of a need. Speak and write clearly in a language anyone can understand, not mired in scholarly jargon. It’s harder than you think.

You are given the chance of a lifetime: an endowment to start a new museum anywhere in the world, devoted to any subject, time period, or person(s). Money is no object! What would you devote yourself to collecting, preserving, and curating?

This is an interesting question I’ve posed to my museum seminar students, and it cuts to the core of what a museum is and should look like. Is it a large, architecturally significant building in an urban space, filled with stuff and exhibitions? Is it a place for community engagement, in which visitors are encouraged to consider their place in society or even their very humanity? Is it a locus for an educational experience? Museums historically have been all of those things, and we hardly need another one. Perhaps what we need is a larger forum for collecting ideas that contemplate the history of the human condition. Would we do it in words, artworks, objects, images, documents, audio, video? I’d probably do it with all of the above and more, and ask a multi-disciplinary team of scholars, thinkers, and teachers to come up with a template of questions to spur an online “museum” that crowd-sources ways of visualizing this history and shares it on the web with everyone. Imaginative curators, web designers, and communications strategists can encourage the broadest ways of collecting this content from a diverse international community with access to the Internet. Then I would task museums around the world, large and small, with addressing through their own collections some of the issues the online museum raises. It would be like an abstract version of a History of the World in 100 Objects, but one that minimizes hierarchical curatorial thinking and utilizes a democracy of objects, things, and concepts—and defacto curators—representing a range of ideas and “stakeholders” as opposed to the standard object connoisseurship we expect of the best museums.

 

ICYMI: The Long Look Back Edition

We missed sharing a lot of great history-related stuff with you, our dear readers, during our August hiatus. Have no fear, a great round-up is here!

Over at the Global Urban History Project‘s blog–our internet bffs–Noam Maggor wrote about “Brahmin Boston and the Politics of Interconnectedness” and Razak Khan about “Princely Architectural Cosmopolitanism and Urbanity in Rampur.”

UHA member Brent Cebul explained the perverse incentives of property tax policy over on City Lab.

From the UCLA Department of Chicanx Studies, a cool map of important Latinx sites in suburban Los Angeles.

The Washington Post’s Made By History vertical recently featured UHA members Andrew Kahrl, Max Felker-Kantor, Dan Berger, Brian Purnell and Jeanne Theoharis, Adam Goodman, Andy Horowitz, Victoria Wolcott, N.D. B. Connolly, and, just today, Heather Ann Thompson.

Following Charlottesville, UHA member Walter Greason’s tweet thread on teaching collective racial violence went viral… we’ll have a reflection from him about the experience on The Metropole next week!

 

I enjoyed the premier episode of Christine Morgan’s new YouTube series The History Gal, and look forward to seeing how the show evolves.

For those who love music as much as they love urban history, I found a Spotify playlist called “Metropolis” for you to jam to this weekend.

And last but not least, a shout-out to us all from the inimitable Ta-Nehisi Coates:

 

Have a great weekend!

Avigail, Ryan, and Hope

“Housing for All?”: Putting History to Work in Cambridge, MA

Housing for All symposium 1 Fall 2016 (1).jpg
Rep. Marjorie Decker (Moderator), Barry Bluestone, Charles Sullivan, and Corrine Espinoza. Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society.

This post by Hope J. Shannon belongs to a series highlighting urban and suburban public history projects.

During the fall of 2016, the Cambridge Historical Society (CHS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts held a three-part symposium titled “Housing for All?” The symposium brought historical perspective to housing issues in both Cambridge and the Boston metropolitan area, and shows one of the many ways history can be put to work in conversations about contemporary problems. I spoke to Marieke Van Damme, CHS Executive Director, about the symposium, its outcomes, and what CHS hopes to achieve by organizing this kind of innovative programming. Read on for our interview and to learn more about how you can have these kinds of conversations in your communities and neighborhoods.

Hope J. Shannon (HJS): What was the symposium? What did it do?

Marieke Van Damme (MVD): Our 2016 fall symposium, “Housing for All?” was the culmination of our year thinking about housing in Cambridge.

In 2015, the Cambridge Historical Society, as a result of serious strategic planning, decided to further refine our community programming. We decided to theme our years, and have all of our programming, events, publications, etc. relate to that theme. It was important to us that the theme be an issue that Cambridge is facing today. We knew that to be relevant to our community, to truly serve as a resource, we had to contribute to the conversation. We believe historical perspective is often lacking in discussions about the present and future, and so we set out to fill that gap and provide much-needed background.

Our first year of themed programming was 2016, and we chose to talk about housing. It’s a serious issue in Cambridge, and one of the first topics people talk about when they get together. We decided to frame our year as a question (“Are We Home?”) because we think this is more inviting to our audience. Instead of the “all-knowing” historical society telling you what you should know about housing in our city, we are asking our neighbors to share their experiences, and to participate in the conversation. As we know, so many of us are not represented in our local historical narratives, and we hope small, subtle changes in how we speak and present information will help change that. We want to be welcoming to all. We can’t be a true historical society if we only collect and share some of the stories of our city, and leave so many out.

When coming up with our set series of annual programs (that change with the different annual themes), we decided that our culminating fall program would be a symposium for a more in-depth, traditional look at an issue. (Other events throughout the year include Open Archives, History Cafes, walking tours, and a fundraiser. More information on our programs is available on our website.)

The Fall Symposium is a two- or three-part event featuring panel speakers with a moderator. In this way, it is traditional. However, we tried a few new techniques to make it more engaging:

  • We place significant emphasis on our differences with other organizations. We make it known, repeatedly, that we are a humanities-based organization. We are not a city-funded or activist group. We bring people together in a slowed-down setting and talk about historical events, precedents, and perspective. We don’t lobby, and we don’t want our audience to mistake our event for a city council meeting. Yes, there is urgency around the issue we are discussing, but the event is meant to be a pause button, not a fast forward.
  • We let it be known, through our remarks and choice of speakers, that the average Cantabrigian’s viewpoint and experience has value. Yes, “experts” are important, but everyone has something to share.

    2016 symposia 3 photos (15)
    Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society
  • We laid down ground rules at each event, expressed verbally by me in my opening remarks, but also in our handout. They were: listen well, ask questions based on genuine curiosity, and think and speak with empathy.
  • We held the events in three different public locations; two were public library branches and one was a community center. They set the right tone of inclusion and openness we were going for.

We were honored that we won a Leadership in History Award from AASLH for this event!

HJS: Who were the community stakeholders involved in the planning and in the symposium discussion? Did the CHS form new relationships? How did the various community interests shape the project?

MVD: It being our first year of new programming, we really pulled off the event with few resources and the dedication of a small group of people. We couldn’t have done the event without very generous funding from the Mass Foundation for the Humanities, and the Cambridge Savings Bank. Their support allowed us to, among other things, pay speakers, market the event, and pay for a programs consultant.

We planned an ambitious three-part series, with three speakers plus one moderator at each event (a total of 12 speakers). To find our speakers, we asked around our networks, reached out to housing activists, and researched experts on the internet. Everyone was so generous to give of their time and participate. Having three events allowed us to delve into the past, present, and future of affordable housing. Of course, we could have had a dozen events and still not adequately covered the topic (one of our attendees wrote on our follow up survey that we were “thirty years too late” discussing the topic).

This year, with more advance planning, we formed an advisory group to help us with the symposium (focusing on changes to Kendall Square in relation to this year’s theme, “What Does Cambridge Make?), and we are already forming a year-long advisory group for 2018’s theme “Where is Cambridge From?” You can never start too early. The good news is that the relationships we formed last year have carried into this year, and have many new friends and contacts to ask for help.

Symposium2-01
Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society

HJS: Did the symposium provide you with any new insights about the history of Boston’s metropolitan area, Cambridge, and/or urban history more broadly? If yes, what were they?

MD: Definitely. Our challenge when planning the event was always “Is it a regional issue, or a Cambridge issue?” The answer was usually “both.” While Cambridge and Boston are often inseparable, distinctions can be made. This is also why personal stories are so important and make all the difference in showing the humanity behind the data.

HJS: What’s next for CHS?

MD: We’ve had a great year so far with “What Does Cambridge Make,” and are looking forward to our final events of the year– 2 History Cafes, and the Fall Symposium. Planning is already underway for 2018!

More about our History Cafe series here.

More about the 2016 Housing for All series here.