UHA 2014: Through the Haze of Jet Lag

Like Andrew, when I arrived in Philadelphia for the Urban History Conference in Philadelphia, I felt excited and overwhelmed. This feeling was not just due to my excitement at feeling rain after months of the California drought, but from the depth of the conference’s program. The exigencies of time, jet lag, and meetings constrained my panel attendance, but I was able to get snippets on a wide range of issues. Hearing a debate on gender the War on Poverty’s periodization, the legacy of Crabgrass Frontier, and even the mention of suburban sex dungeons, the conference was a testament to how dynamic the field is right now and the kind of dynamic scholars it has attracted.

One of the few complete panels I was able to attend was a roundtable entitled “Giving Gentrification a History” with Michael Carriere, Aaron Shkuda, Kwame Holmes, Alison Isenberg, Brian Goldstein and moderated by Suleiman Osman. It was one of several panels on gentrification featured on the program, which is a sign of how the issues of the issues of the present shape studies of the past. The members of the panel, each engaged with the interesting question of whether or not gentrification had a history from a different vantage ranging from punk rock to Henry George to Harlem USA. The panel did not just bring new perspective to a seemingly exhausted issue, but also showed how the topic of gentrification can serve as important place where scholars can help to weigh in and complicate the contemporary debate.

I was delighted and genuinely surprised  by the turnout to my own panel “New Perspectives on Business and the City,” given the slot very early on Sunday morning. This turnout showed the emerging interest in the intersections of history of capitalism, markets and business with urban issues. The comment for the panel was Julia Ott who brought an exciting and important perspective related to financial services and capitalism. Despite the important implications of her work and insight for scholars of urban history, however, Julia has not usually been part of the “urban history” conversation. It is my hope that the Urban History Conference will continue to have a focus on urban structures, but will increasingly be a meeting ground and open to scholars who might not necessarily consider themselves urban historians. In doing so, we can expand the temporal, geographic and disciplinary reach not just of the conference, but the field as a whole. Perhaps one small and easy way we can do so is to more actively encourage our colleagues outside of the subfield to submit panels and papers for the next conference and/or to design panels with this idea in mind.

Thanks to the conference organizers and I am already looking forward to Chicago in 2016!

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About Lily Geismer

Lily Geismer is assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. She is the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

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