Tag Archives: Public Housing

Member of the Week: David Yee

yee photo uhaDavid Yee

Ph.D. Candidate in History

Stony Brook University

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

My current work is a social history of mass housing and inequality in Mexico City. The dissertation traces the rise of Latin America’s largest shantytown, Ciudad Neza, as it grew alongside a government-built housing complex named San Juan de Aragón. Both Ciudad Neza and San Juan de Aragón are representative of a crucial historic juncture for Mexico, and Latin America in general, an era when the optimism of modernist urban planning was eclipsed by the rise of the urban shantytown. I focus on housing to explore how it contributed to “a great divergence” among the millions of migrants who arrived to Mexico City in the middle of the twentieth century. During this period, public housing evolved into a mechanism for upward mobility among the city’s incipient middle-class at the expense of the informal poor, producing a new set of political subjectivities and cultural sensibilities among the city’s residents.

The project stems from my life-long fascination with the historical experience of people leaving the countryside for major cities. After pursuing several different ideas (street vendors, migrant associations), I found that struggles over housing provided a focal point and entryway into this experience and allowed me to highlight the diversity of the people arriving to Mexico City during the 1950s (erroneously portrayed in the press and scholarship as a monolithic mass of poor, illiterate campesinos.)

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

In the past, I have usually taught courses on Latin American history, but this past summer I was able to teach a course called “Cities in World History.” It was great to go beyond Latin America and teach about housing and architecture in places like New York and Paris. We also went up to the present and covered the rapid growth of refugee camps, a socio-spatial formation that exists in a peculiar kind of limbo state that contains both elements of transitory encampments and permanent neighborhoods. The refugee crisis is creating human settlements of millions of people and they’re challenging what we think of as “urban.” Ben Rawlence’s account of a massive refugee camp in Kenya (City of Thorns) and the UNHCR’s online resources on camps/cities in Syria were very eye-opening for the students.

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

There has been an effervescence of literature on Latin American cities in the past few years. The best of example of that work can be found in Cities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America, which is really a great collection of cutting-edge work that spans across various disciplines and countries. I’m looking forward to the release of two books on Mexico City – Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City and Andrew Konove’s Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy of Mexico City (both due out next year).

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

In general, there is no perfect dissertation topic. I found it was better to go through an early process of trial-and-error, doing some initial archival research to see what existed and where it would take me as opposed to trying to conceptualize and formulate everything in my head. Specifically, with urban studies, it is by definition multi-disciplinary/ interdisciplinary, opening up the opportunity to reach out to other scholars outside of your own department for advice, leads, or possibly to serve on your committee.

As a historian who studies the built environment and housing in Mexico, what has your response been to the two massive earthquakes that just hit the country?

More than anything else, there has been a tragic loss of life (361 people so far) that stretches from Mexico City to Chiapas. They were jolts that revealed the underlying divisions in Mexican society, while producing acts and sentiments of solidarity that transcended those divisions experienced in one’s everyday life and daily routines. At the time of this interview, I see hundreds of volunteers throughout the city as I go through my day. The memory of the more devastating 1985 earthquake is palpable in every sphere of society. There is a large void to be filled among historians in regards to the urban social movements that preceded the 1985 earthquake, its role in the expansion of Mexico’s civil society, and the urban reconstruction phase in the aftermath of the earthquake (one of the largest since the Marshall Plan in Europe). Two great pieces for further reading are: Elena Poniatowska’s Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake (a book on the 1985 earthquakes) and a recent article by Pablo Piccato, “Lessons from Mexico’s Earthquakes: 1985 and Today.”

Member of the Week: Katie Schank

Schank - UHA photoKatie Marages Schank

George Washington University, PhD, American Studies, May 2016

Emory University, Fellow, James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, 2016-2017

@kmschank

 

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

In my current research, I explore the relationship between architecture, housing policy, race, and visual culture to study the history of Atlanta’s public housing program. The “rise and fall” narrative, which frequently relies on critiques of design, policy, and funding, has dominated public housing history, and I hope to demonstrate the ways in which visual representations and public relations had an equally vital and largely untold role of influence on this major municipal program. My research focuses on demonstrating that neither the early success nor the later failure of public housing was inevitable but both were the result of considerable rhetorical work dependent upon representations of modernist architecture, the social program, and residents. I also explore the unique, symbiotic relationship that existed between Atlanta – a city obsessed with image and self-promotion – and public housing. While focused on Atlanta, my research looks at larger questions about the ways that images and visual rhetoric operate as agents in urban politics, policy, and understandings of race.

I lived and worked in Atlanta for five years before moving to Washington, DC to start graduate school. It was unlike any other city I had lived in, and while it took a while to grow on me, I became fascinated with it. While I was working on a paper for a research seminar, I stumbled on a catalogue entry for a collection of papers at Emory University of an Atlanta real estate developer turned amateur documentary photographer, filmmaker, and public housing advocate. A year later, happy to have a reason to visit Atlanta, I took a research trip to view that collection. Within the first day of research, I had a feeling that I might have discovered my dissertation topic. This topic perfectly brings together my interests in the built environment, urban history, and visual culture. Now, as I’m taking my dissertation and revising it to become a book manuscript, I am still just as excited about this topic as I was when I started my research almost seven years ago.

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

Last semester I taught a course at Emory University called “20th Century African American Urban History and Visual Culture.” We examined twentieth-century African American urban history through the lens of visual culture. As a class, we worked to develop a clear understanding of the historical and interdisciplinary frameworks that are available to analyze and “read” both documentary and popular visual materials such as photographs, television, and film. The class drew directly from the methodology that I use in my own work, and while we did study other cities, Atlanta was the main focus of the class. It was rewarding to see students develop the critical skills necessary to look at visual materials and begin to realize that photographs and films are not innocuous materials but serve an agenda to shape perceptions about race and the city.

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

I am always excited for new scholarship about Atlanta, so I am looking forward to Maurice Hobson’s book, The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta, which is being published by UNC Press this fall.

While it is not a publication, I am also looking forward to the 2018 release of documentary about the East Lake Meadows housing project in Atlanta by Ken Burns and his team. They seem to be taking a very balanced approach in telling the history of the program and the story of East Lake’s redevelopment. I know that they have gone to great lengths to find and interview former residents. I also had the honor of being interviewed for the film, so that certainly adds to my excitement about its release!

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

I would encourage them to attend the Urban History Association Conference! The conference draws scholars who are doing such interesting and important work. It is a great way to get a sense for all of the possibilities that exist in the field. Not only should they attend the conference, attend paper sessions, and present their own work, but I would urge them to make an effort to meet people – both senior scholars and their peers from other universities. As a grad student, I was admittedly nervous and hesitant to approach scholars whose work I had read and admired. Yet, once I began to talk with people, I found them to be very approachable and genuinely interested in talking to me about their work and my work. Since my first urban history conference five years ago, I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of people in the organization. They have provided me with great advice and support in terms of my research and career, and I now look to them as mentors. I also look forward to seeing my “conference friends” – people I’ve gotten to know who are at similar stages of their careers to me. It’s always great to have a chance to catch up and encourage one another. Because I hope to have a career in this field, these are people that I will see and work with for years to come.

What is one of the most unique or unusual visual representations of public housing that you have used as a source in your study?

I would have to say that the music video for Outkast’s “B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad)” is one of the most unique visual representation I have used in my work. In the video, Outkast’s Andre 3000 stumbles out of an apartment in the now-demolished Bowen Homes housing project in Atlanta. Instead of the drab brick buildings and poorly landscaped grounds that existed when the video was filmed, he’s surrounded by psychedelic purple grass and trees, bright yellow sidewalks, and neon green roads. Whereas so many images from this time period are focused on despair and the failure of the program, the vivid colors of the video combined with the fast tempo of the hip hop music offer an image of Atlanta’s public housing that was very different from the dominant narrative being circulated when the album was released in 2000. The music video offers the view of an alternate future and different possibilities for public housing residents by invoking Afrofuturism. It was a valuable perspective and important message that was not coming from anywhere else during this time period. I love that my interdisciplinary approach to urban history means that hip-hop videos and traditional archival sources each have a place in my work.

Member of the Week: Carmen C. M. Tsui

Carmen Tsui_PhotoCarmen C. M. Tsui, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, City University of Hong Kong

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

Growing up in Hong Kong, I was always fascinated that such a tiny city can accommodate a population of 7 million people. Nevertheless, I have a fundamental concern with how the housing history has been written in China and Hong Kong, and this concern has led to two current research projects. The first project studies the origins of public housing in China. I wish to correct a common misconception that Communists invented public housing in China after 1949. My research traces the origin of public housing in China back to the Republican era in the 1920s and examines the state’s efforts to make housing a domain of the government. My second project studies philanthropic housing in Hong Kong from the 1950s to the 1960s. I challenge the official account that often describes the beginning of welfare housing in Hong Kong as a government response to resettle victims of a disastrous squatter fire in 1953. The project points out that, in fact, philanthropists invented welfare housing in Hong Kong, and these philanthropists had developed several housing estates for the local working class even before the official government public housing program.

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

I am teaching a lecture course on the history of architecture and urbanism, a seminar on architectural theory, and a studio course on architectural design. I hope that through a comparative global perspective, students can develop a critical eye in looking at China and Hong Kong. In my courses, I often challenge my students to think critically about whether Western urban and planning theories can be applied to China. For instance, while teaching the City Beautiful Movement developed around the 1900s in the United States, I analyze the ways that this movement impacted the city planning of early modern Chinese cities. When teaching the modernist planning ideas, I ask my students to compare the rationality and monotony of Le Corbusier’s planning models with their experience of the new towns in Hong Kong. By linking history and theory with familiar Chinese examples, my students are more engaged in learning when they see how history and theory link to familiar Chinese examples.

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

I am currently reading Nancy Kwak’s A World of Homeowners: American Power and the Politics of Housing Aid. This book reveals how the ideal of homeownership was developed in the United States and further exported to the rest of the world. I am also happy to see several new books published recently on the architecture and urban history of Asian cities. These books include A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience by Jiat-Hwee Chang and Globalizing Seoul: The City’s Cultural and Urban Change by Jieheerah Yun.

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

I think young scholars should set their career priorities and stay focused. Urban historians and scholars often have broad interests. We are curious about everything that is happening, or has happened, in the city. Nevertheless, it is hard to do everything at once. Sometimes, we need focus on the project at hand and be realistic about our working capacity.

What architectural details do you enjoy looking for when you’re exploring a new city?

I love visiting architecture made by the common people: traditional markets, street food stalls, and so forth. I am always intrigued by the vernacular wisdom in construction and the way architecture is woven into everyday life. I also like to visit historical buildings that have been adapted for contemporary uses.