Tag Archives: Underground Economies

Member of the Week: Andrew Konove

HeadshotAndrew Konove

Assistant Professor

Department of History, University of Texas at San Antonio

@AndrewKonove

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

I just completed my first book, Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City, which will be published later this spring. It traces the history of Mexico City’s infamous “thieves’ market,” called the Baratillo, from its origins in the seventeenth century to the present day, revealing how illicit street commerce has been central to both the urban economy and urban politics since the colonial era. My new research grows out of that project. I’m looking at how the circulation of informal currencies, which were traded in markets like the Baratillo, spurred new ideas about poverty, economic development, and sovereignty in Mexico and the Hispanic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I see it as a study that links economic ideas to on-the-ground economic practices and one that broadens my focus beyond Mexico City.

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

This semester I’m teaching Introduction to Latin American Civilization—my department’s one-semester survey of Latin American history. At first, the incredibly long time frame was a challenge (I begin the course discussing human migrations to the Americas during the last ice age and end with recent political developments in the region). But it’s actually become my favorite class to teach. I think it’s important for students to think about long-term patterns, something I deal with in my own research.

I’m also teaching a new class on Imperial Spain from the fifteenth century to the Spanish-American War of 1898. The idea behind the class is to put Spain’s interactions with Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Pacific Islanders into same frame of analysis. It covers a similar period as my course on Colonial Latin America, but it takes a global perspective. Teaching this class is helping me to conceptualize a new project that looks beyond Mexico to the broader Hispanic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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

On my shelf is Patricia Acerbi’s Street Occupations: Urban Vending in Rio de Janeiro, 1850-1925, which I’m eager to read. Along with Sandra Mendiola García’s recent book, Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico, and my own forthcoming book, we’ve had a surge of recent scholarship on street vending in Latin America, and that’s very exciting! I’m also looking forward to Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City, which comes out this spring.

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

I’d encourage them to think and read broadly about their topics, looking beyond their disciplines and outside their geographic areas of expertise. Some of the most helpful scholarship I read in writing my book was the social science literature on the informal economy and studies of street vending outside of Mexico and Latin America. I’d also push them to try to bring their research to a broader audience. We generally gear our first book toward specialists, but it’s also important to share our work with people outside the academy. From op/eds in the local paper to commentary in news magazines to articles in our schools’ alumni magazines, there are many opportunities to take our work to the public. And they might be surprised: in an era of short attention spans and rapid news cycles, there is a lot of demand for experts to provide historical context for present-day challenges.

What item sold at the Mexico City’s thieves market would most surprise or delight The Metropole‘s readers? 

In 1895 a vendor in the Baratillo was caught with rails stolen from the Federal District Railway. The report doesn’t specify the length of track he was trying to sell, but it seems like a particularly conspicuous item to try to unload.

Member of the Week: Tammy Ingram

B&W_Web--2Tammy Ingram

Associate Professor of History

College of Charleston

@tammyingram

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

I’m working on a new book that’s tentatively titled The Wickedest City in America: Sex, Race, and Organized Crime in the Jim Crow South. It’s about Phenix City, Alabama, a small city in the southern part of the state that served as the headquarters for a large organized crime network during the first half of the twentieth century. Most people had never heard of Phenix City before the summer of 1954, when a crime-fighting local attorney named Albert Patterson was assassinated just days after winning the Democratic primary to become the state’s new attorney general. The murder inspired a Hollywood feature film and forced state officials to intervene and clean up the city after years of looking the other way. More than 700 people were indicted in the cleanup, including the three prominent public officials charged with Patterson’s murder. One was the attorney general of Alabama. He checked himself into a mental hospital in Texas to evade prosecution, but the highly publicized trials of his accomplices, the deputy sheriff and the circuit solicitor, exposed the sordid details of the city’s long history of crime and corruption and kept Phenix City in the news for nearly a year.

Like most people I have always associated organized crime with urban centers outside of the South, so the revelation that a small city of 20,000 people in Alabama was run by a homegrown mob surprised me. But I only decided to write a book about it when I realized that this sensational murder story was but the ending to larger and more important story about white crime in the Jim Crow South. Generations of ordinary white citizens and elected officials in Phenix City participated in criminal enterprises that ranged from gambling to narcotics to a black market adoption scheme, and they were shielded from prosecution by the same Jim Crow governments that were criminalizing black southerners. The reverence for local control among white supremacists in the South protected criminal regimes like the one in Phenix City from outside scrutiny or criticism. I think this also helps to explain how Phenix City remade itself in the wake of scandal. Newspapers and tabloids called it “Sin City, U.S.A.” and the “wickedest city in America” after the Patterson murder case exposed its secrets, but less than a year after the murder Phenix City received an All-America City Award for the crime cleanup. Everyone wanted to forget what had happened there, and almost everyone did.

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

I teach both graduate and undergraduate courses on the modern South, race and politics, and crime and punishment, so there’s not much space between what I do in the classroom and what I do at my desk. And I love that. My current research into sex trafficking and illegal adoptions in Phenix City in the 1940s and 1950s inspired a new seminar on modern slavery and human trafficking that I taught last year while I was a research fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale. While those students were developing their own research papers, I worked alongside them on my own. That paper ended up being an article that I completed over the summer. In my regular courses, I incorporate new scholarship into lectures and class discussions, but I also do primary source workshops with things I’ve found in the archives. Students seeing those sources for the first time have sharp questions and insights that I incorporate into my research and writing all the time.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about?

Right now I’m also reading everything I can find on underground economies. I love LaShawn Harris’s new book, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy, but I’m also really excited to read similar work by non-Americanists, like Andrew Konove’s Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City. If anyone reading this has more suggestions, send them my way.

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

The most important piece of advice that I can give to any young scholar is to write a lot and share that work widely and often. Submit to journals and presses, sure, but write shorter essays and op-eds and blogs for the kinds of media outlets and general publications that you like to read. Give conference papers or brown bag talks or lectures even when your work is not yet polished, as scary as that is, and do it with scholars and citizens and policymakers outside of your main field of interest. This is especially important in this challenging job market—a sore subject, I know—because you may discover job opportunities or publishing opportunities that you wouldn’t know about if you stayed in the same lane all the time. And you’re bound to get feedback that you are never going to get if you only share your work with your closest advisors and classmates and colleagues.

Your first book was on the Dixie Highway, the nation’s first interstate highway system. Can you suggest a road trip itinerary that urban historians would enjoy?

Oh, I love this question. Of course I have to recommend at least a portion of the Dixie Highway. Very little of the original roadbed is left, but you can drive much of the original route between Chicago and Miami. Whether you choose the eastern or western division of the highway, it’s a meandering route that will take you through ghost towns and railroad towns and straight through the middle of major urban centers like Indianapolis and Atlanta, so it’s a great way to see how towns and cities were linked in the 1910s and 1920s, when long distance automobile travel was a newfangled concept. Motorists skipped from town to town hoping their cars would get them to the next fueling station or hotel or auto camp before dark. I especially love the route through middle Georgia, where portions of the original roadbed survive, and in South Florida. I’ve never driven the entire thing, but anyone who wants to make a long road trip out of it should call me. If they want to do it on motorcycles, even better.