Universities and Cities

This summer I will be working on revisions for my book, Building the Ivory Tower, and submitting the manuscript to my publisher, the University of Pennsylvania Press. In it, I examine the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. As I wrap the major part of this project up, it’s useful to reflect on how I came to this research, my origins story as a scholar.

In college at Western Michigan University, there were two main student neighborhoods, one east of campus, older and more urban on a traditional street grid; the other west of campus, lower density and more suburban. My senior year of college there were two big block parties that got out of control, drawing in police who were then repelled with rocks and bottles.

As a crowd mills in the street, a local reveler throws a door onto a blazing fire in the Knollwood neighborhood of Kalamazoo, MI, 2001.  Photo from the Western Herald.
As a crowd mills in the street, a local reveler throws a door onto a blazing fire in the Knollwood neighborhood of Kalamazoo, MI, 2001.

Both of these happened, about 6 months apart, in the western student neighborhood near the 7-Eleven where I worked. These were such striking events, prompting severe political responses by city politicians, that I began to think about both the built environment as a significant factor in the life of college towns and about the political relationship between the city of Kalamazoo and the university. After taking an MA with a focus on public history and vernacular architecture I applied to grad school and was lucky to find myself in the midst of the spatial turn in history, including examination of geography, planning and architecture that probably would not have been possible five to ten years earlier. This initial inquiry has sustained me through numerous career twists and turns but the questions essentially remain, what are the spatial relationships between universities and their surrounding communities? How did they come about? And what are the politics of space in those higher education communities?

Some of the works with the greatest influence on me were Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto, along with Margaret O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge. Combining critical investigations of space with policy history has informed nearly all of my work for the last 10 years. Especially going over Hirsch’s work on Chicago, where we share an interest in the University of Chicago and Hyde Park, I’ve realized again and again how richly detailed his book was and how difficult it is to capture, in concise prose, months and years of archival work with an interesting narrative. It’s a tough standard to live up to.

LaDale Winling is assistant professor of history at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is working on a book project examining the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. He also blogs at Urban Oasis.

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About LaDale Winling

LaDale Winling is assistant professor of history at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His book project, Building the Ivory Tower, examines the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. Learn more about him at Urban Oasis.

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