UHA 2014: Historians in the Age of Global Crisis

The Sunday sessions on the final day of an academic conference usually struggle to draw a crowd. Many of the attendees are just trying to make it to the airport to catch their flight home, while others set aside the final day to explore the host city. Two years ago, attending Sunday panels was far from the minds of most attendees at the UHA conference in New York City. Our main concern was making it out of the city, period. I remember nervously sitting in LaGuardia that Sunday afternoon with fellow Milwaukeean and regular UHA attendee, Amanda Seligman, mere hours before Hurricane Sandy made landfall. As were we filing onto one of the last flights to leave that night, airport employees were battening down the hatches, literally, covering food stands, waiting areas, and kiosks with tarps in preparation for floodwaters.

While there was no cataclysmic storm driving attendees of this year’s UHA conference out of Philadelphia, there was a plenary session on Sunday afternoon that compelled many of us to stick around to the very end. I, thankfully, was among those persons who made it to the session titled “Urban History in the Age of Global Crisis.” Outgoing UHA President Tom Sugrue served as the moderator, and Heather Ann Thompson (University of Michigan), Nathan Connolly (Johns Hopkins), Anton Rosenthal (University of Kansas), and Elizabeth Shermer (Loyola University Chicago) offered remarks, which were followed by a lively and engaging discussion with members of the audience.

Heather Ann Thompson framed her remarks on the rise of neoliberal urban governance around the city of Detroit. The city’s dire fiscal situation has led many leading voices in the city (and, nationwide, voices from the both the political Left and Right) to question the effectiveness of current policies that have resulted in such large numbers of arrests and the high costs associated with policing drug crimes and managing imprisoned populations. Thompson cautions us from assuming that this is beginning of the end of the war on drugs and the age of mass incarceration. To the contrary, instead of questioning the logic of current policing strategies that have effectively criminalized urban space, devastated urban minority populations, and destroyed the lives of untold numbers of people (mostly, young black men), what is happening in Detroit today and in cities across America is what Thompson describes as the “privatization of the war on crime.” In place of taxpayers footing the bill, cities like Detroit are opting instead to hand over entire branches of urban government to the private sector. This, she contends, has troubling implications for the future of urban America.

In his comments, Anton Rosenthal also addressed neoliberalism by tracing its origins and development in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, when that nation became a petri dish for the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman and the Chicago School. We have only begun to unpack this history, as well as other atrocities carried out against the urban populations of Argentina during its dirty wars of that same decade, all of which, Rosenthal stressed, have so much to teach us about the present moment and the future of cities at a time when urban populations (and the ranks of the urban poor) are growing at an exponential rate around the world. In South America, the history of state-sponsored terror and repression is being written in and on the built environment, through excavating the memories and, quite literally, the places where people “disappeared,” where crimes that went unspoken took place.

Nathan Connolly picked up on this theme in his powerful, provocative remarks on how historical preservation has and continues to serve as a form of activism and potential counterweight to those who strive, at every turn, to silence the past.[1] As two of the youngest and most groundbreaking scholars studying the history of capitalism and political economy in modern America, both Nathan and Elizabeth Shermer also offered a broad overview of the field, and what it can offer to the study of cities. Both reminded us that the history of capitalism has been built, in so many respects, on the shoulders of urban historical scholarship of the past two decades. Perhaps no more so than by the work of Tom Sugrue, whose book The Origins of the Urban Crisis continues, over 15 years after its publication, to profoundly influence the study of modern urban America, and inspire and inform the work of new generations of urban historians. It’s worth remembering, as one of the panelists pointed out, that scattered throughout Origins are incisive, penetrating insights into the making and mechanics of modern capitalism and its role in the production of racial inequality.

This plenary session was a fitting end to a truly remarkable meeting. There was an energy and excitement unlike anything I have seen at a conference before. I think it’s because we can see that the work being done today is not only conceptually and methodologically innovative, and is leading the study of urban history in directions that few could have envisioned even a decade ago, but that our work speaks so directly, and with such relevance, to the concerns of the present. It was thus fitting that as the discussion period of the plenary session came to an end, talk turned to reforms within the academy and historical profession that will give young scholars and non-tenured professors incentives to embark on projects and produce work that speaks to wider audiences, contributes more directly to public policy discussions and debates, and moves the study and practice of history in new directions. The panelists at last Sunday’s plenary session are doing this: Shermer is a contributing writer for Bloomberg View, Nathan is helping to launch a digital history project of HOLC “redlining” maps, and Heather has become a leading voice in critical policy debates over policing, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration. Their work should be a model for us all.

As I was riding the train out to the airport, I kept thinking about how many more voices in our profession need to be heard more outside of the conference room. Given the serious, perhaps unprecedented, challenges facing us today, I don’t think we should be asking ourselves if we can afford to take time away from checking off the boxes for tenure to speak to new audiences, but if we can afford not to.

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1997).

Andrew W. Kahrl is an assistant professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South (Harvard University Press, 2012).

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