Monthly Archives: September 2014

Talking to Journalists about Urban History

A guest post by Elaine Lewinnek

Since my book came out last May, I have been stumblingly discovering how to talk to reporters about it. Chatting with one reporter researching African-American suburbanization, I explained that early Chicago was racially diverse; the lines of the Black Belt did not harden until the Great Migration. “Okay,” she replied, “What’s a Black Belt? And what’s the Great Migration?”

Her question made me pause because I did not realize that I had been speaking gobbledygook. A friend joked that it is good she asked, since, without that query, she might have ended up writing about avian martial arts. Of course, I would not use terms like “Black Belt” or “Great Migration” without any explanation if I were speaking to an introductory class of first-year college students – but I had forgotten that many reporters and their readers are also novice students of urban history. So many journalistic questions stem from amazingly attentive reading that it can be easy to forget that most journalists are the equivalent of first-year students, or at least their readers are.

Another reporter told me that one of the most fascinating things he learned from my book is that white people were not always white. That is indeed an important insight but, of course, it is not my original idea. Other terrific scholars buttress my argument that it was largely through notions of twentieth-century suburban-style property ownership that Chicago’s European immigrants consolidated their whiteness. Yet it feels slightly foolish to recommend numerous other books to reporters. Most reporters do not have the time to read a half-dozen book recommendations.

This may be a special challenge in an interdisciplinary field like urban studies. We build on others’ scholarship, from geography to history to sociology and race studies and economics. And, because of our space-based rootedness, we write things of interest to a general audience. I am curious to hear from other urban historians: how do you address a wider audience without overly simplifying your ideas?

While accommodating diverse levels of background knowledge is one challenge, another is the pressures of presentism. I can tell reporters that the patterns established in Chicago as early as 1920 lasted throughout the twentieth century, reinforced by new policies. I can also explain that many benefits of housing, from health to home-equity, linger for generations. I can refer reporters to other books that carry the story forward to the present — so I am particularly thankful that Mary Barr’s analysis of the contemporary racial politics of Evanston is coming out soon. Each of these is a partial solution, though. If you write about urban history before 1950, how do you explain to others how it matters? Even if you write about urban history before 2000, or before yesterday, I suspect this may be a problem. Journalists’ job is to explain today.

It is a terrific problem to have, I know. It is part of the welcome challenge of learning how to communicate ten years of research and 200 pages of dense prose to a wider audience. It is also one of the things I did not learn in graduate school, since, then, I did not have a book to promote. So I am learning it now, stumbling through, and curious to hear how others address these issues.

Elaine Lewinnek is an associate professor of American studies at California State University-Fullerton, and the author of the recent book The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.

Guest Post: Conference Buzz

Howard Gillette has been talking up the Philadelphia UHA meeting.  Cross-posted from WHYY’s Newsworks site:

Next month some 400 historians from around the country will converge on Philadelphia for the biannual meeting of the Urban History Association, Oct 9-12. The topics of their discussion will range widely, but framing the four days of exchange will be opportunities for participants to explore directly signs of new life in the region in the aftermath of post-industrial decline.

An opening tour on Thursday, Oct 9 will start at The Navy Yard, a 1,200 acre site well into the process of creating a mixed-use campus based on historic preservation, sustainability, and smart growth. After visiting Urban Outfitters, a home-grown business success story, the caravan will travel to North Philadelphia to examine the effects of new transit-oriented development before moving on to review sites of revitalization in Northern Liberties.

On the last day of the conference, participants will be able to tour Camden, still the nation’s poorest city. They will encounter signs of decay, no doubt. But the emphasis that day, as Mayor Dana Redd and Camden Redevelopment Agency director Saundra Ross Johnson will point out, is new investment: in the neighborhood around Cooper Hospital, at the Kroc recreational center in East Camden, due to open officially October 14th, and at Campbell Soup, where a revised master plan promises to connect the Fortune 500 company’s campus to the rest of the city.

The cumulative effect of these new investments may prove surprising, even to those living in the area. And they hold promise that the Philadelphia region may finally have turned a corner from the devastating effect of a generation’s worth of disinvestment.

Historians know that the fate of cities lie in a cumulative process of decision-making over time. Many of the actions now just taking form will have consequences for a long time to come. Parts of Philadelphia and Camden have much in common, in high levels of poverty and attendant social problems, including high levels of crime. New structures alone do not solve that problem. Investment must bring with it expanded opportunity.

Among the questions they will be asking is what the effect new investment might have on poverty rates in both cities? With regions increasingly seen as the engines of a modern economy, are Pennsylvania and New Jersey working effectively together to address the array of social issues that stem from such concentrated urban poverty?

The decision of the Philadelphia 76ers to locate their new practice facility in Camden is a good case in point. The team had all but decided to locate the new structure at the Navy Yard, literally a stone’s throw from where they play their home games. But the high level of incentives New Jersey offered proved more than the city could offer, and team officials chose Camden instead.

The decision may prove beneficial to the region over time if the 76ers prove good neighbors, not just by hiring locally, but establishing its own civic engagement with city residents. In short, the decision will be considered a good one, if the site has a positive multiplier effect.

Campbell Soup also extracted economic concessions from the state when it threatened to move from its corporate headquarters on Camden’s Admiral Wilson Boulevard. So far, the main result has been the demolition of the historic Sears Building, without any new benefit to the people living in Camden. Revisions in the plan of a stand-alone suburban style office park, promise something more in the way of city benefit, but details at this point remain sketchy.

At the Navy Yard, the process of investment is overseen by a semi-governmental entity, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation. In North Philadelphia, the actions highlighted on the urban history tour have been spurred by grass-roots community development corporations with support from outside investors. In Camden, the state has been emphasizing tax credits as a spur to investment.
Three different parts of the region highlight three different kinds of development. With the economic challenges at hand, none of the existing approaches need be emphasized to the exclusion of the other. Yet the tough questions should be the same for each site: what are the immediate and long-range effects of such development? And how can such efforts prove sustainable in the effort to return our cities to the magnets for building wealth they have been historically.
It will be up to future historians of the region to make that judgment.

Howard Gillette is author of Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City and is professor of history emeritus at Rutgers Camden.

Urban History Podcast #3, Eric Avila

Podcast interviewers Andrew Needham and Lily Geismer talk to Eric Avila about his new book, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City. (UMN Press, Amazon). Moving beyond traditional notions of freeway revolts, Avila’s work examines how freeways were incorporated into popular culture, art, and commemmoration simply because of their presence in the the lives and landscapes of millions of people.