The City as Text

A guest post by Michael Carriere.

I became an urban historian in no small part because I love cities. Since I was a child, I have been captivated by the sights, smells, and sounds of the urban environment. I’d like to think that this passion informs both my writing and my teaching on the subject of urban history, allowing readers and students alike to hopefully create their own attachments to cities. Yes, I am an historian, but the boundaries between past, present, and even future prove quite blurry when you’re dealing with something as alive and dynamic as the city.

Such a perspective does not mean that I’m a naïve optimist when it comes to the state of the city in the early twenty-first century. For the past ten years, I have lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city that – like other Midwestern cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis – is often held up as a decaying model of “Rust-Belt” urban decline. Sadly, there is much truth in this depressing narrative of declension. I see the poverty, violence, and disinvestment that marks Milwaukee, as well as countless other American cities, on a daily basis. Through a variety of texts, guest speakers, and other teaching tools I try to impart to my students the history behind this present moment of crisis. That’s pretty much what I try to do with my writing as well.

Yet over the past two years I have become struck by the reality that such academic engagement with the past is not enough. In my home state I have watched our governor, Republican Scott Walker, push forward a distinctly anti-urban agenda. Following Walker’s lead, Republicans in the Wisconsin State Legislature have passed legislation prohibiting early voting on weekends. Such laws attempt to replace the history of the struggle for voting rights in the United States with a sort of make-believe version of the past, one in which voter fraud and other forms of electoral corruption lurks around every urban corner. Sadly, this reinvention of history is playing out in a number of states across the country.

The Wisconsin State Legislature’s strange vision of the past, however, is not even the most distasteful version of alterna-history coming out of the state. In early March 2014, U.S. Representative – and former Republican vice-president candidate – Paul Ryan appeared on the Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” show to announce that all the 50-year “War on Poverty” has done is create a “poverty trap” laden with “incentives not to work and to stay where you are.” Yep, that’s it. More troublingly, Ryan quickly moved the discussion outside of the realm of history and into the nebulous world of culture. Perhaps deciding that Ayn Rand just wasn’t mean enough to make his point here, Ryan citied political scientist/amateur geneticist Charles Murray in his explanation of just why lazy city folks don’t want to get a job. As Ryan explained to Bennett,

we have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities in particular of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work so there’s a cultural problem that has to be dealt with.

A cultural problem. Not a problem rooted in the complex economic, social, and political histories of American “inner cities.”

Ryan’s home city, Janesville, Wisconsin, is, according to 2010 Census data, over 90 percent white. Similar demographic trends mark Oxford, Ohio, home of Ryan’s alma mater, Miami University. Ryan, simply put, has never had to confront the messy relationship between race and economy. And he is not alone here: I would venture to say that educators across the United States deal with young people with similar backgrounds every day. For privileged white students, even the “smart” ones, discussions of urban structural inequality – and the histories behind this inequality – had little place in their suburban and rural school districts. Sadly, as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently pointed out, many in charge of educating Americans on such matters share this narrow perspective. There is little doubt that this collective ignorance helps many to accept the fictions that Ryan peddles as fact.

It is in light of this chain of events that I have come to embrace what can best be described as a pedagogy of action. This approach to historical scholarship is marked by dual commitments to engagement and activism, but such commitments are not meant to overshadow the core questions that motivate academic inquiry. Research still matters tremendously, though my research methods now find me moving out of the archive and directly into the community. And what I, with the assistance of my students and a host of other partners, produce may not always be another book or journal article, though these things remain vital to the study of history. The final outcome of such a collaborative research project is, at its best, something that has a tangible impact on both the built environment of the city – and those that live within this environment every day. Most importantly, such projects offer a corrective to the toxic conceptions of history, labor, city life, and urban development that undergird the narratives offered by Ryan and his ilk by exposing them to how cities actually look and work while simultaneously creating worthwhile “real-world” things that benefit more than a handful of specialized academics.

Let me explain how this has worked for me. This past academic year I anchored the curriculum for my honors-level classes in the history of Milwaukee. Over the course of three academic quarters, my students and I used a variety of readings to better understand the impact that immigration, migration, white flight, urban renewal, and deindustrialization have had on the city of Milwaukee. We also took great care in studying how the residents of the city have responded to such histories. For example, many of my students – conditioned to believe that the struggle for African-American civil rights was rooted exclusively in the South – were amazed to learn about such groups as the Milwaukee Commandos and such individuals as Father James Groppi. Within deeply segregated Milwaukee, Groppi, a white Catholic priest, and the Commandos, a group of young African-American civil rights activists, worked relentlessly throughout 1967 and 1968 to press for fair housing legislation in Milwaukee. On April 30, 1968, the Milwaukee Common Council passed a more thorough fair housing ordinance than what was called for in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Yet I wanted my students to see how these histories, even in the early twenty-first century, remain alive throughout the city. We began holding some class meetings in the headquarters/living room of a small non-profit organization called Gingerbread Lane. For twenty-five years, Gingerbread Lane has been offering a variety of social services to the residents of Harambee, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the city’s near North Side that has been hit hard by changes to Milwaukee’s economy. We began to collect the oral histories of such individuals as Clara Atwater, or “Mother Clara,” as she insisted my students call her, founder of Gingerbread Lane, and her grandson Toussaint Harris, the current director of the non-profit.

Mother Clara Atwater, founder of Milwaukee’s Gingerbread Lane.

We listened as they described the ways that the loss of jobs brought about the rise of gangs and the drug trade in their community – Harris himself was once a drug dealer – and the ways that they began to offer programming to counter such developments.

Gingerbread Lane director Toussaint Harris, seen here with his cousin Devon Jones.  Jones is helping Harris organize "Mission: Man Up," a program meant to help African-American men acquire job skills in Milwaukee.
Gingerbread Lane director Toussaint Harris, seen here with his cousin Devon Jones. Jones is helping Harris organize “Mission: Man Up,” a program meant to help African-American men acquire job skills in Milwaukee.

We also listened as they talked about what their community still lacked. As people fled the city, many homes entered into foreclosure. Abandoned, these homes were often torn down by government officials hoping to limit urban blight before it spread further. As people left the city, capital soon followed. Jobs joined the mass exodus to the suburbs, while many services that most of us take for granted – including grocery stores – closed their doors forever. Vacant lots dot the landscape surrounding Gingerbread Lane, as do shuttered storefronts. Fresh produce and other healthy foods are hard to find. Here, on display for my students to see, was the urban geography, indeed the recent urban history, which so many politicians and commentators willfully ignore.

In light of such histories, Mother Clara asked us to collaborate on a community gardening/urban agriculture endeavor with Gingerbread Lane. This proved fortuitous, as I ask my students, during the fall academic quarter, to identify and work on a service-learning project that connects with what we are learning in the classroom. Soon, my students were reading about such Milwaukee urban farms as Growing Power, founded by Will Allen, recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2008 for his working providing healthy food to residents of Milwaukee, and speaking with people like Antoine Carter, program manager for Milwaukee Urban Gardens (MUG), a non-profit land trust that provides city-owned vacant lots for those that want to start community gardens.

As some of my students began to draw up plans for raised-bed gardens on two vacant lots close to Gingerbread Lane others sought grant opportunities to help fund the project. A grant from Milwaukee-based Victory Garden Initiative allowed us to purchase and plant a community orchard: over 25 fruit and nut-producing trees now reside on Gingerbread Lane’s block. Over 70 community members turned out on a chilly spring day to help with the arduous work associated with the planting of such trees. Paul Ryan would have been proud.

Tree-planting day on Gingerbread Lane, April 26, 2014.

Towards the end of the school year we began to plot out how best to use these new resources. Moving forward, Gingerbread Lane wants to provide opportunities for formerly incarcerated African-American men in Milwaukee to work the gardens and orchard, growing produce that can be distributed to neighbors in need and sold to nearby stores. As participants in these conversations my students were able to see that history is not static; the conditions wrought by such earlier episodes as deindustrialization have brought to the fore efforts to deal with such conditions. Urban agriculture, we all came to see, can address issues related to food access, urban redevelopment, and job creation in ways that earlier policymakers and planners would have never imagined. Here are the seeds of a counter urban history (pun entirely intended), one that both captures the continued vibrancy of our urban centers while providing a necessary corrective for those that see such centers exclusively as ahistorical hotbeds of cultural pathology. Within this emerging narrative, the conditions that brought about the “urban crisis” are not denied. But the story must not end there. I’m reminded of this every time I drive by the gardens on Gingerbread Lane.

One of the first things I have my students read in the fall is Michel de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City.” It is a hard text for an undergraduate to get through, but, after a few readings, they start to see the distinction between “voyeur” and “walker” that is central to de Certeau’s argument. They come to understand that most scholars operate solely as voyeurs, and they appreciate the agency that de Certeau gives the urban walker and the ways we often unknowingly “write” the city. They are excited about the possibility of “linking acts and footsteps” and, in the process, creating “liberated spaces that can be occupied.” And this act of occupation, my students soon realize, can provide space for actors usually left out of the historical record.

A pedagogy of action allows my students – and even me – to see the city as such a text, one that they can both read and write themselves. As my students become walkers, they start to see the historical conditions that they had previously overlooked. Such first-hand observations then allow them to see more clearly the connections between these conditions and the scholarship that they are wrestling with in class – and even creating themselves. Finally, by working on service-learning projects these young people are able to act on what they have learned by civically engaging with the world around them, in an attempt to make that world a better place. As an educator, I couldn’t ask for a better way to expose my students to the value of an education rooted in the liberal arts.

I do not claim to be the first academic to use the city to reach such ends: my work has been inspired by the efforts of Anne Whiston Spirn and her West Philadelphia Landscape Project and the oral histories collected by Cleveland State’s Mark Souther and the Cleveland State Center for Public History and Digital Humanities, among others. Rather, I hope to highlight the need for more such projects. At the same time, the academic community needs to see such projects as a valid form of scholarly engagement/research – not as something we do when we have the time (or tenure). At a moment when so many are seeking to effectively disenfranchise large swaths of America’s urban populations, such an approach to the practice of history has the potential to empower a tremendous variety of actors, from students to community members alike. I am done simply being a voyeur – how about you?

Michael Carriere is an assistant professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where he teaches courses on American history, public policy, political science, environmental studies, and urban design. He has written for such publications as the Journal of Planning History, Perspectives on History, the Journal of Urban History, Reviews in American History, History News Network, Punk Planet, and His first book, tentatively titled Between Being and Becoming: On Architecture, Student Protest, and the Aesthetics of Liberalism in Postwar America, is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in American history. He can be reached at


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.

One thought on “The City as Text

  1. Excellent. This takes the “City as Text” idea and makes it both tangible and political in ways teachers can actually use.

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