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.
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.
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.
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!
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
My dissertation, “Saving Salt City: Fighting Inequality through Policy and Activism in Syracuse, New York (1955-1975),” uses mid-twentieth-century Syracuse, New York, as a lens to explore the relationship between grassroots activism and federal, state, and local government policies. I aim to uncover the factors that fostered innovative efforts to address social problems in Syracuse–and why these efforts largely failed. Five specific issues dominated community conversations during this time: education, housing segregation, tenants’ rights in public housing projects, employment, and leadership. Examining them reveals that although activists achieved some tangible victories at the local level and even reshaped the realm of possibility in the national political landscape, they were unable to fundamentally alter systemic mechanisms that reproduced inequality and segregation.
I came to this topic in stages. Before starting graduate school, I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services. In this position, I worked with a geography professor to compile census data on the low-income neighborhoods that my organization served, including the one in which I lived at the time. The people with the lowest incomes lived in the areas with the oldest and poorest housing stock, which was expensive to maintain and potentially had lead paint hazards. Moreover, these neighborhoods were racially segregated. I wanted to understand the political, economic, and social forces that created this situation. My boss assigned me Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis to read, and it captivated me and inspired me to study urban history.
As I began to think about dissertation topics, my focus shifted to the ways in which these oppressive urban conditions had been challenged by citizens. Syracuse is a perfect entry point into a study of urban social movements. The city had both a robust civil rights movement and two controversial War on Poverty programs that were terminated by the federal government. Using the case study approach allows me to untangle complicated organizational and political relationships and trace individual careers across organizations, capturing nuances that would be lost in a regional or national narrative.
Describe your current work in the public humanities. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?
Last November, I joined the staff at Humanities New York as Grants Associate. This necessarily entailed a transition away from the classroom and has made carving out writing time a challenge, but it has been so rewarding. Humanities New York is a state-level, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our grants and programs allow organizations around the state to creatively engage their communities using the tools of the humanities. I get to interact with representatives of libraries, historical societies, and quite a few academic departments. It’s all about drawing connections–among organizations doing similar work, from the particular to the general, between historic and contemporary contexts. My academic training definitely helped prepare me for this type of work.
Additionally, through my position I’ve acquired a new perspective on how communities both urban and rural are discussing issues such as economic inequality, race, democracy, and immigration. This has informed how I think about the activists that I study. It helps me appreciate that this type of work is ongoing. The issues at the top of reform agendas in 1967 certainly resonate fifty years later. On the other hand, we need to understand the specific factors that inhibited groups from achieving their goals in the twentieth century in order to move forward in the twenty-first.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?
Although it can be daunting when time is so precious, seize opportunities to share your work with community members outside of academia. Consider partnering with a community organization on a humanities project. The results will most likely be unexpected but exciting.
You have done a lot of public history and teaching in the community. Would you share one of your favorite memories of doing this work?
During the 2016-2016 academic year, I was a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities New York. Each fellow proposes and implements a public-facing project. I worked with the Southwest Community Center in Syracuse to offer a camp on local human rights history last summer. I received a Humanities New York Action Grant through my history department to make the project happen. Eleven young women between the ages of ten and thirteen participated, and I had an amazing co-teacher and assistant. We went on a field trip every day. The best trip was to Harriet Tubman’s house and gravesite in Auburn, New York. The students were amazed that Tubman’s home had been preserved and was not a replica. Harriet was a role model and hero for them, and they were excited to learn more about her legacy. At her gravesite, they spontaneously gathered around the marker and bowed their heads in prayer. History can impact us in profoundly personal ways, and I was fortunate to share that experience with the campers.
This is the inaugural post in a series highlighting urban and suburban public history projects.
The Chrysler Village History Project has its origins in the spring semester of 2013, when a group of history graduate students from Loyola University Chicago nominated the Chrysler Village neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side to the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination was successful, and the Chrysler Village Historic District was officially added to the National Register in early 2014.
Rachel Boyle, who was part of the group that wrote the nomination, explained the district’s historical significance. “Chrysler Village represents an important link between urban and suburban history,” Boyle said. “It was a distinctly urban housing development created by private-public partnerships during WWII, but stands out in Chicago’s physical landscape with its suburban-esque curvilinear streets. Additionally, the neighborhood’s history contributes to Chicago’s history as one of the only construction projects that took place during WWII.”
In many cases, the focus on properties or districts nominated to the National Register fades with their rejection or successful designation. But Boyle wondered if she could take a different route and find some way to put the research gathered during the nomination phase to work for the Chrysler Village community. “Recurring questions [about the designation] from the community lingered: ‘So what? How does this actually benefit us?,’” Boyle said. “The Chrysler Village History Project began as an experimentation of how to harness the neighborhood’s newly discovered history for the immediate benefit of Chrysler Village residents.”
Maggie McClain recounts Boyle’s next steps. “In the interest of capitalizing on this successful nomination, Rachel Boyle visited my first graduate public history course at Loyola [in fall 2014] seeking ideas for how the neighborhood’s history could be used to build community within Chrysler Village.” The course was History 480: Introduction to Public History Methods and Theory, a requirement for incoming MA and PhD students in Loyola University Chicago’s graduate public history program. Boyle, who was by then a PhD candidate, worked with the course instructor, Patricia Mooney-Melvin, Ph.D., to turn these questions into a half semester-long course project. Students in the course had to develop proposals explaining how they would use the history gathered from the National Register nomination to create some kind of value for the residents of Chrysler Village.
Kelly Schmidt, who was also a student in History 480 that fall, explains what happened at the end of the semester. “I joined Rachel Boyle and a group of students who continued the project outside of the classroom.” Chelsea Denault, who had been part of the group that worked on the original National Register nomination, also joined the project at this stage. “Together, we decided our purpose was to preserve and celebrate the historical significance of the community, but we wanted to do so in a way that was accessible and engaging to everyone in the community,” explains Denault. “I thought it would be worthwhile to take part in a new project that involved the residents and provided them with some service, opportunity, or benefit.”
The Loyola team knew that they needed to establish a strong working relationship with local residents before they could move forward with their ideas. “One of the challenges we faced initially was coming in to a community as outsiders,” said Schmidt. “Fortunately, we met a group of residents who were ‘movers and shakers’ in their community and were willing to commit their time and energy to the project. We wouldn’t have had as much success in building a relationship with these residents without the involvement of the director of the local historical society, who was adept at serving as a bridge, communicating our interest in the community as well as what residents desired to see for their neighborhood. Our resident partners were able to draw upon resources and people in the community we never would have known about, or who we wouldn’t have been able to get on board ourselves… Residents were able to build other stakeholders’ trust in ways we as outsiders could not.”
The Loyola team brought the most viable ideas from the History 480 proposals to a community meeting in Chrysler Village in spring 2015. This meeting resulted in the creation of a community committee that worked with the Loyola team to decide on the parameters of what they called the Chrysler Village History Project. Together, they decided to plan an oral history initiative and community history festival, among other things. They also built a website to house historical materials relating to Chrysler Village’s history and to act as a central hub where anyone interested in the project could learn about it and join the effort as a volunteer.
Maggie McClain coordinated much of the oral history initiative, which involved interviewing current and former residents of the Chrysler Village area, transcribing the interviews, and donating them to the nearby Clearing Branch of the Chicago Public Library. They worked with Chris Manning, Ph.D., instructor of Loyola’s graduate oral history class, to incorporate Chrysler Village interviews and transcriptions into his fall 2015 course syllabus. Students in the course recorded and transcribed interviews with current and former Chrysler Village residents for their final course project. The community history festival, which took place in August 2016, also involved the recording of interviews—one of many festival activities intended to help build connections across the Chrysler Village community.
Ultimately, Boyle attributes the success of the project to the strength of the partnerships developed between the team and key community stakeholders. “A cohort of passionate residents were committed to making the project work for their community, and proved to be the core reason the project succeeded,” Boyle said. “The constant support of the local alderman’s office also ensured that the necessary resources were available. And when communication between public historians and the local community struggled, the local leader of the historical society quickly emerged as an incredibly valuable translator.”
The Loyola team faced challenges along the way that ultimately yielded powerful lessons about public history practice. Schmidt explains, “Sometimes in our public history training we study the ideal of public history method, but ideals don’t always prove effective in practice. We had been taking formal avenues…to obtain our goals, which was a slow and expensive project. Our community partners showed us how relying on relationship networks was a far more fruitful approach.” Boyle added, “I recall being rightly convinced by local residents that the marketing for the festival should emphasize ‘fun’ rather than ‘history’ and ‘community-building.’ These incidents drove home that public historians have valuable skills to contribute but need to be tempered by the realities of community stakeholders. In short, shared authority can produce better results.”
Denault notes another difficulty faced by the Loyola team: the decision about what to do with the project once the community history festival had taken place. “We struggled a great deal with how to responsibly extricate ourselves from the project and hand off ownership of the project’s future to the community. After meeting with our resident stakeholders and having an honest conversation about their expectations and vision for the future and how to achieve that, we ultimately felt that we had given our community partners enough tools, contacts, skills, and guidance to remove ourselves in order to let them grow and transform the project to continue to meet the community’s needs.”
With the history festival behind them, the Loyola team is hopeful that community members will continue the efforts begun as part of the Chrysler Village History Project. Boyle said that residents from Chrysler Village recently established a block club to “build off the energy from last year’s festival and continue to foster community.” McClain added, “Many of us in this group felt that we have done what we can to engage the community…it will be up to community members to keep that going.”
Hope Shannon is the UHA newsletter editor and a doctoral candidate in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago. Before joining Loyola’s history program, she was the executive director at the South End Historical Society in Boston. She is the author of Legendary Locals of Boston’s South End, a book that draws on oral history testimony to tell a new story of the neighborhood’s history. Hope is a founding member of Loyola University Chicago’s Public History Lab, and she is the chair of the American Association for State and Local History’s Emerging History Professionals Committee.
This post discusses only a small portion of a very large project. Click here for more about the many facets of the Chrysler Village History Project, including a mural, pop-up museum, short articles about the area’s history, and a collection of historic images. The Chrysler Village History Project was also the recipient of the 2017 Student Project Award from the National Council on Public History and a 2017 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. They received Honorable Mention for the Alice Smith Prize in Public History from the Midwestern History Association.
The Loyola arm of the Chrysler Village History Project operated within Loyola’s Public History Lab, a group founded by Loyola University Chicago history graduate students in 2013 that aims to create partnerships between history graduate students and organizations and sites of history in the greater Chicago area.
Rachel Boyle earned her Ph.D. in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago. In addition to studying gender and violence at the turn of the twentieth century, Boyle brings over seven years of professional experience in every corner of the public history field, from exhibit curation and site interpretation to oral history and historic preservation.
Chelsea Denault is a Ph.D. Candidate in United States History and Public History and Graduate Assistant at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago. Her dissertation focuses on the local politics surrounding the construction of the nation’s largest trash incinerator in Detroit, the community and international backlash against its operation, and the complex and problematic financial legacy it left to the city.
Maggie McClain is the Visitor Experience Coordinator at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, Wisconsin, where she plans and manages family programming and assists with the volunteer program. She is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago.
Kelly Schmidt is a Ph.D. student in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago, where she studies eighteenth and nineteenth century American history, particularly in the area of race, slavery, and abolition. Kelly has pursued her interests in museum work at the Heritage Village Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
Among the topics I am currently interested in is the Colored Y Campaign lead by Rev. Jesse E. Moorland in the early 20th century. The efforts of the national and local YMCA offices, local communities, and the Rosenwald Fund acquired enough money to have more than 20 YMCA buildings built for African American men across the country. The construction of these buildings helped to shape urban space and opportunities for its members. I first became interested in Moorland and the Young Men’s Christian Association a few years ago while I was working at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. There I came across one of Moorland’s scrapbooks from the St. Louis campaign. In the book was a photo of the organizing committee on an urban block with which I was unfamiliar. As a native of St. Louis, I thought that I was aware of all of the city’s neighborhoods, but this photo introduced me to an entire community that I had heard of in passing but had never before seen. These organizations through these buildings transformed both the physical and metaphysical landscape for African American men in urban centers across the country.
Describe what you are currently curating. How does this work relate to your scholarship?
I am the Curator for Race and Ethnicity at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. As a curator I am working to expand one of the nation’s best collections on American women to be more inclusive. This means exploring communities, organizations and individuals that have been traditionally overlooked and underrepresented in archives and subsequently in scholarship. Uncovering the lives and stories of underrepresented women, many of them from or influential in urban communities across the nation, is critical to understanding the development of the American city as well as the suburb. Curators and collections managers are constantly uncovering and sometimes rediscovering past people and events that alter our understanding of American culture. Additionally, through our collecting we get to influence the direction of future research and scholarship. Women that we encounter today whose stories we archive, via oral histories, diaries, correspondence, publications and more will be the subject of current and future research.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
I would advise young scholars interested in both public and academic tracks not to be dismayed by the broadening of their professional interests because all things are related. A course that you teach on Second Wave feminism or an exhibition that you need to develop on 19th century cooking can and should be influenced by urban history. Making those connections often times will ignite your passion for urban history allowing you to make it more accessible to wider audiences.
What texts or readings would you recommend on the topic of your research?