Tag Archives: Public Housing

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: Matt Lasner

matthew-lasner_uap-bio2Matthew G. Lasner

Associate Professor, Urban Policy and Planning

Hunter College, City University of New York

 

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

I am writing a new book tentatively entitled the rather cumbersome Bay Area Urbanism: Architecture, Real Estate, and Progressive Community Planning in the United States from the New Deal to the New Urbanism. It explores the work of socially engaged designers in the San Francisco Bay Area who, at various points between the 1930s and 1990s, either partnered with sympathetic developers (like Joseph Eichler) or became part-time developers to get new kinds of speculative housing built—generally low-rise, high-density communities built for a mixture of kinds of households, with open-space. Before the New Deal, urbanists all over the U.S. (as in Europe throughout the twentieth century) were interested in managing urban growth but quirks in big federal programs like public housing and, especially, urban renewal diverted attention to rebuilding city centers to the exclusion of most else. Except in the West, and especially the Bay Area, where the unique natural environment (geography, topography) made it more difficult to ignore the suburbs. So the book is about how professionals assert their values but also about flexibility and creativity in the American system of housing provision.

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

You’ve caught me in the middle of a sabbatical. Normally, though, I’d be teaching a mixture of service courses for our masters’ students like Introduction to Urban Planning and the History and Theory of Urban Planning, and courses focused on housing: both the history and current struggles. Nearly every fall I teach a course called Housing and the American City and in the spring a course called Housing in the Global City. In general I see teaching and research as iterative. Teaching the past and present of U.S. housing in a single semester has proven hugely helpful in clarifying my ideas about American housing politics. And it led, rather directly, to my work on the book Affordable Housing in New York (2016), which I co-edited, and wrote or co-wrote about half of, with Nick Bloom. Meanwhile, I recently published an article in Journal of Urban History (“Segregation by Design“) about how developers in the U.S. South used design to maintain racial boundaries in rental apartment complexes without flouting the law after passage of the Fair Housing Act. The primary example I look at is a swinging-singles complex built in the late 60s that I learned about from my students when I was teaching at Georgia State University. Had I not taught classes there on the history of U.S. suburbs and on U.S. cultural landscapes, I never would have known about these kinds of places. But, really, in every course I teach I learn so much from my students.

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

It should go without saying I’m eager to have my own book done, although it’s still quite a way’s off. Working on a book about the Bay Area, and about speculative postwar housing, I’m most excited about several new(-ish) books on overlapping topics: Alison Isenberg’s Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay (2017), Ocean Howell’s Making the Mission: Planning and Ethnicity in San Francisco (2015), Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses For a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs 1945-1964 (2015), and James M. Jacobs’s Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia (2015). I’m also quite excited for two non-scholarly books that have just been published: Progress & Prosperity: The New Chinese City as Global Urban Model (2017), edited by Daan Roggeveen, who previously wrote one my favorite books on contemporary urbanism in China, How the City Moved to Mr. Sun (2010); and The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, which the Brooklyn-based planning firm Interboro Partners (Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore) have assembled after more than a decade of work.

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

My advice for PhD candidates is to broaden. It’s important to have feasible, realistic research goals—no one should bite off more than they can chew, and I believe in the old adage that the best dissertation is a done dissertation. At the same time, I find that too many dissertations jump from literature review to the internecine, losing sight of the kinds of questions that are of interest to a general scholarly audience, and that will advance the field. Urban history, broadly conceived, is still inchoate, especially for non-UK topics. In U.S. urban history in particular we need dissertations that ask big, fundamental questions about the contours of urban change, and that challenge the field’s foundational texts, many of which reflect the anxieties of a very different era in the evolution of the American metropolis.

Do you find that researching and studying housing as a profession has made it easier or more difficult for you to find housing? Has it made you more critical about where (and in what kind of housing) you choose live? Or are you a broker/real estate agent’s dream client?

My preferences in housing have perhaps become somewhat more particular—I think a lot about things like internal circulation (in apartment buildings) and the number of exposures (in an apartment). Since entering the for-sale market (multifamily, naturally) I’ve also likely become a thorn in the side of agents. When we bought our current apartment I had the seller scrambling to find not just copies of the building by-laws and house rules, but the original offering plan, floor plans, evidence of building reserves and all kinds of other things that most people never think to ask for. And when I sublet, I insist that my tenant also have copies of most of these documents. The place we live is a condominium—so no board interview with a screening (or screaming, as one observer called it) committee—but if it had been a cooperative, I’m sure I’d have had more questions for them than they for me. I came away from my first book believing that multifamily homeownership can work—that it’s not a lot of gold bricks, as one critic worried—but I’m all too aware of the potential pitfalls.

 

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.