I’ve always been interested in politics and inequality in the United States. Since my undergrad days at the University of Michigan, those interests have taken on a spatial cast, as I came to appreciate how race, class, and access are arranged across cities and suburbs, most often in systematic ways orchestrated in large part by public policy. I’ve continued to pursue these interests as a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, where I work with Tom Sugrue and Michael Katz. In 2013-14 I was the Penn Urban Studies Graduate Fellow, an opportunity which connected me with other scholars of urban and metropolitan issues across disciplines. I’m now finishing up my dissertation (which I’ll defend in the fall) and teaching in the undergraduate Urban Studies program.
My dissertation, “The Real Silent Majority: Denver and the Realignment of American Politics after the Sixties” grows out of these interests. Focusing on metropolitan Denver, it traces the emergence of a pragmatic,trans-partisan grassroots political sensibility from the late-1960s onwards that was overwhelmingly moderate, committed to personal choice and privacy, and organized around the mantra of “quality of life.” I then go a step further to show how this evolving grassroots politics got translated into formal politics, particularly through the Democratic Party. My story culminates in the election of Bill Clinton and the success of the Republican Contract with America, two seemingly polarized events that, I argue, were in fact both attempts to capture this volatile and rapidly expanding political center.
Before coming to grad school, I worked as a production and editorial assistant at National Public Radio in Washington and at WBUR, the Boston member station. While I hope that some of the investigative reporting and storytelling skills I developed as a journalist have carried over to my work as a historian, these days it’s rare that I get to make use of my audio production chops. That’s why I’m excited to be joining the Urban History podcast! It’s a great chance to bring together two of my very favorite things: history and radio. For the most part, I’ll be the one behind the scenes, cutting tape and making things flow. If I do my job right, you won’t even know I’m there.
So reading Dale Winling’s and Andrew Kahrl’s posts on their work has inspired me to get my blogging started by putting a dispatch out there on my own “new” research, which will be the focus of a summer trip back east when I load up my family in our minivan at the end June. First, to introduce myself, I am Michelle Nickerson, a women’s&gender/political/urban historian and recent transplant to Chicago. I grew up in New Jersey, received all of my education on the East coast, but lived and worked in Texas for ten years before moving with my family here, where we lived in an ice cave this past winter. The first part of my research career focused on conservatism among middle-class suburbanites in the Sunbelt. But for all kinds of reasons I’ve been inspired to study a very different place and different people for the next part of my career.
My second book project looks at Catholic radicals who burned draft cards to protest the Vietnam War. I am writing a monograph about the Camden 28, a group arrested and put on trial in the early 1970s for burglarizing a Federal Building in the most poverty-stricken enclave of Southern, New Jersey. The activists damaged 700 draft files and office equipment, creating what the Selective Service supervisor estimated to be $13,500 worth of property damage. This action was the final such raid perpetrated by the “Catholic Left,” a network of nuns, priests, ministers, students, lay Catholics and non-Catholics mostly who destroyed (in their estimate) over a million conscription records between 1967 and 1972. They targeted draft boards in economically distressed cities because they identified military conscription as a mitigating factor in the urban decline. As Father Michael Doyle declared in his closing remarks at the trial, “Camden is a casualty of the war.” Unanticipated, though not surprising, was the racial uprising that happened simultaneously with the raid in downtown Camden. Several of the 28 couldn’t even get into the city because buses would not get off the freeway during the so-called “Puerto Rican Riot” that erupted in response to police brutality.
One reason I am interested in the Camden 28 is because I take this history personally. I was born in Camden 6 months before the August raid. As a youth I would take the speed-line train into Philadelphia with my friends, which passed over Camden, where we never got off. It looked then like it does now–like Dresden after the war, bombed out. No one can seem to fix this problem. Camden was also the verbotten land when I was growing up–that scary place. Part of figuring out this “scary place,” I think, is figuring how how it has been forgotten…how people forget, what they forget and why. I was raised Catholic in South Jersey, less than 20 miles from the Federal Building, but nobody told me about the raid or the trial. It was never drummed into me as part of MY heritage as a Catholic. This is not surprising because I grew up in the Era of Pope John Paul II and the conservative Catholics who dominate the region took minimal interest embracing radicalism as “their” heritage. But there is more to this, which I need to figure out.
One last thing:
I was also inspired by a fantastic documentary (see http://www.pbs.org/pov/camden28/) by another local of my generation. Filmmaker Anthony Giacchino, a first-rate historian himself, left a voluminous archive of his sources, including FOIA records, behind in Swarthmore College’s Peace Collection.
So that’s where I will be in July–combing through Giacchino’s collection, doing oral histories, eating water ice, and hoping to get down the shore.
This summer I will be working on revisions for my book, Building the Ivory Tower, and submitting the manuscript to my publisher, the University of Pennsylvania Press. In it, I examine the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. As I wrap the major part of this project up, it’s useful to reflect on how I came to this research, my origins story as a scholar.
In college at Western Michigan University, there were two main student neighborhoods, one east of campus, older and more urban on a traditional street grid; the other west of campus, lower density and more suburban. My senior year of college there were two big block parties that got out of control, drawing in police who were then repelled with rocks and bottles.
Both of these happened, about 6 months apart, in the western student neighborhood near the 7-Eleven where I worked. These were such striking events, prompting severe political responses by city politicians, that I began to think about both the built environment as a significant factor in the life of college towns and about the political relationship between the city of Kalamazoo and the university. After taking an MA with a focus on public history and vernacular architecture I applied to grad school and was lucky to find myself in the midst of the spatial turn in history, including examination of geography, planning and architecture that probably would not have been possible five to ten years earlier. This initial inquiry has sustained me through numerous career twists and turns but the questions essentially remain, what are the spatial relationships between universities and their surrounding communities? How did they come about? And what are the politics of space in those higher education communities?
Some of the works with the greatest influence on me were Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto, along with Margaret O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge. Combining critical investigations of space with policy history has informed nearly all of my work for the last 10 years. Especially going over Hirsch’s work on Chicago, where we share an interest in the University of Chicago and Hyde Park, I’ve realized again and again how richly detailed his book was and how difficult it is to capture, in concise prose, months and years of archival work with an interesting narrative. It’s a tough standard to live up to.
LaDale Winling is assistant professor of history at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is working on a book project examining the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. He also blogs at Urban Oasis.
This blog is the brainchild of Tom Sugrue, president of the Urban History Association, and, at the outset, the work of the digital subcommittee of the UHA board. It is an effort to bring the work of urban historians to the public, to keep scholars in touch with one another outside of conferences and publications, and, most of all, to shed light on the history of cities. Our initial contributors are Lily Geismer, assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College; Andrew W. Kahrl, assistant professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Virginia; Michelle Nickerson, associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago; and LaDale Winling, assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech.