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.

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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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