All posts by andrewkahrl

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. Continue reading UHA 2014: Historians in the Age of Global Crisis

Summer on My Mind

It is somewhat ironic that I plan to spend this summer holed up in my cramped home office writing about, well, summer.  Rather than making plans to go to the beach, my plan is to write a book about a beach.  Perhaps fittingly, though, it is a beach that I would have had a hard time gaining access to, anyway.  I am referring to the sandy shores of Connecticut’s Gold Coast, home to some of the wealthiest zip codes in the U.S., and, not coincidentally, some of the most exclusive—and exclusionary—beaches in America.

Writing about summer life at the town beaches and private clubs along this suburban shoreline in the 1960s and 1970s might, at first glance, seem to mark a departure from my primary research interests: urban black America, race and real estate, and environmental injustice.  Indeed, the vast majority of the people who lived and spent their summers along this shoreline at the time would have agreed, and, moreover, denied that the privileges they enjoyed (and jealously guarded) were in any way linked to the “long, hot summers” of discontent that annually gripped urban black America.  And yet, as I soon found after I began to explore this subject several summers ago, the privatization of public space along this and other suburban shorelines in post-World War II America was inextricably tied to the deterioration of urban environments during those same decades.

The corner of W. Roosevelt Rd. and Loomis St. on Chicago's West Side, where a dispute over police officers' shutting off a fire hydrant neighborhood kids were using to cool off sparked three days of civil violence in July 1966.  Several of the mass uprisings that swept across urban America in the 1960s and early 1970s were sparked by a dispute over recreational space or access to water.
The corner of W. Roosevelt Rd. and Loomis St. on Chicago’s West Side.  Here, in July 1966, a police officer’s decision to shut off a fire hydrant that neighborhood kids were using to cool off sparked 3 days of civil violence.

More than a few at the time said as much.  Edward T. “Ned” Coll, a tireless, bombastic activist and founder of the Hartford-based social welfare agency Revitalization Corps,  spent over a decade protesting against local ordinances and private practices that had rendered the state’s coastline (despite being public land) effectively off-limits to the poor.  For Coll, the private and resident-only beaches that lined the state’s coast, when contrasted with the dilapidated parks and dangerous, polluted waterways that snaked through the impoverished neighborhoods of Hartford’s North End, exemplified the ways in which, in the words of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, “white society [was] deeply implicated in the ghetto.”  Taking to heart the Report’s dire warning that, without immediate action, America was in danger of becoming “two societies, one white, one black—separate and unequal,” Coll fought tirelessly to open these beaches to the underprivileged children from Harlem, Hartford, and New Haven, and facilitate positive interracial contact in places of leisure. Continue reading Summer on My Mind