The UHA blog is beginning a series on the Urban History Association’s past award winners, the process of creating the work and, in the case of the dissertation prize, turning it into a book. The first subject is Catherine McNeur, an assistant professor of environmental and public history at Portland State University. Her Yale dissertation won the UHA prize in 2012 and it is coming out as a book this fall with Harvard University Press. (Available through Amazon, HUP, and Portland institution Powell’s.)
How did you come to develop the two areas of specialization as a professor of environmental history and public history? And how do they work together in your current position?
Prior to beginning graduate school in history, I worked for several years in historic preservation in New York City. Once I began graduate school, however, I focused primarily on environmental history, urban history, and American history more generally. When I saw the position posted at Portland State for someone who specialized in both public and environmental history, I was eager to apply. Portland State has a thriving public history MA program that draws students from around the country, many of whom find positions in the region. I’ve been having fun developing public history courses with an environmental twist. This spring, for instance, I taught a course on historic preservation where we focused not only on the social, political, and architectural aspects of preservation, but also the environmental (heritage landscapes, superfund sites, and the adaptive reuse of buildings). I’m particularly excited about next spring when I’ll be partnering with the foresters at Portland’s Heritage Tree program to teach a public history laboratory course. We’ll be helping to bring attention to the program by researching the histories of the trees that have been saved, writing walking tours and brochures, and the like. Down the road I also hope to develop public history courses about environmental justice and the interpretation of superfund sites.
What was your path through graduate school to tenure track faculty? What elements of your scholarly and professional profile would you say were most valuable in securing your job?
I think a fair amount of luck is involved with securing a tenure-track job these days. For the position at Portland State, specifically, I think it helped that I had background in both public history and environmental history. Besides that, I can really only speculate on what helped. I had gone on the job market the year before I got the job at Portland State. While I didn’t secure a tenure-track position, I was fortunate to get the Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellowship at the New-York Historical Society and the New School. This gave me the chance to develop courses in urban environmental history and American food history and experience working with a range of different students. I also deliberately worked to secure a book contract soon after graduation and that may have helped with the process. It’s hard to say which ingredient was the most important but I certainly feel fortunate to be where I am.
Tell us about your research and how you developed the topic for your dissertation, which won the 2012 Best Dissertation Prize from the UHA.
Early on in graduate school, I took a research course with Joanne Freeman on the early republic. I was flirting with several possible topics but then had a fleeting memory of reading about New York City’s hog riots in Edwin G. Burrow and Mike Wallace’s Gotham. I found the idea of hogs on the streets of Manhattan amusing, as did my classmates when I floated this possible topic during discussion one day. My initial reaction that pigs were out of place in a city ended up fueling my larger project about how ideas of the urban environment and what properly belonged in a city changed over time. Unlike today’s enthusiasm over backyard chickens and rooftop beehives, the mid-nineteenth century saw a lot of backlash against urban agriculture. As I expanded the topic beyond pigs, I found some juicy stories about how various New Yorkers fought over the urban environment as they designed parks, sold horse manure to regional farmers, unearthed connections between corrupt politicians and corrupt food, developed shantytowns, and the like. By juxtaposing seemingly odd combinations of stories (excitement over using human waste as fertilizer alongside the development of Central Park, for instance), I was able to unearth larger themes about environmental justice, government power, and the transformation of nineteenth-century cities.
How did you balance the new, including stories about horse manure, with familiar topics like the development of Central Park? What was the process of developing this work — the scope, the stories, and the style? Who or what were your key influences? After graduating, what was your revision process like from dissertation to book?
Even seemingly familiar stories—such as the Draft Riots or the creation of Central Park—can turn out to be novel when placed in a new context, such as the long history of environmental injustices involved in transforming the urban environment. As I planned out this book, a major goal of mine was to never write off elite New Yorkers’ goals for beautification in favor of the goals of poorer New Yorkers. I wanted to maintain some sort of balance so both sides could be better understood. This meant I have topics that range from park development and the planting of street trees to shantytowns and the boiling of slaughterhouse waste.
I also knew going into this project that I wanted to work on the antebellum city, as both urban and environmental historians typically give the period less attention. Many of the issues facing cities in the Progressive Era were similarly playing out in the pre–Civil War city, although different players posed different solutions.
As I turned the dissertation into a book, my main goal was to make my arguments clearer, fine-tune the narrative, and tap into more of the literature on urban environments and public space. I can’t express enough how much I benefited from the peer reviews solicited by the university presses I shared the manuscript with. That process was one of the most fruitful I’ve experienced as a scholar so far and I look forward to paying that forward in the future.
Would you care to share any of those juicy stories to whet our appetites? And just how does one conceal a pig in one’s hoop skirt?
One of my favorite stories in the book comes from an offal contract scandal in the early 1850s. Following the cholera outbreak in 1849, City Inspector Alfred W. White was eager to remove a range of “nuisance industries” from areas near residences in Manhattan. Seeing how Irish and German immigrants were profiting from the recycling of slaughterhouse waste by boiling down its component parts and then both selling them to local manufacturers and feeding them to pigs, White had this idea to get into the business himself. He simultaneously made it illegal for these small-scale operators to do business, while setting up a company that would work exclusively with the city. He became a secret partner in a waste-recycling company that he founded. They initially set up an operation on South Brother Island—a little-known, uninhabited island that still exists, just south of Riker’s Island—where he and his partners would ship the waste, process what they could sell, and then feed the leftovers to thousands of pigs on the beach so that it could be washed away at high tide. Things started going wrong for this company quickly, though. One partner took over the steamship they were using to haul the barges of offal, blood, and bones, and used it to host parties with a “number of loose women and common prostitutes.” Apparently the boat became known as the “North River Brothel.” This story goes on, involving farmers in Queens and what’s now the Bronx calling their business a nuisance, and the contract eventually becoming exceptionally lucrative. Overall, though, it’s a story that allows me to delve into the growing municipal power over the urban environment, those who lost out in the process, and what the corruption meant for the variety of waste-related problems facing the city. And, plus it’s just plain entertaining to think of an offal boat being used for scandalous parties.
The story about pigs under hoopskirts comes from a different, but related incident. In this case, in 1859 the municipal government waged the “Piggery War” on the offal-boiling industries where there were penned pigs in what’s now midtown Manhattan. Journalists from a variety of newspapers followed along with the health inspectors and police as they toured the facilities and homes of the proprietors. The newspapers reveled in stories of Irish women hiding pigs in their homes, whether under their beds or in their dresser drawers, in hopes of tricking the police. The New York Herald specifically noted that it was a “pity the ladies in the locality do not dress in the prevailing fashion”—in other words hoopskirts—because they could have hid them there. In this period when bourgeois womanhood was so intricately tied to parlors and domesticity, the idea that dirty livestock were allowed into these homes reinforced the idea that the Irish immigrants were completely different from the middle-class readers of these newspapers. To top it off, they were so unfashionable that they couldn’t even use a hoopskirt to hide an extra hog.
What is next for you in terms of research?
I’m at this wonderful stage where I’m beginning to explore potential projects—small and large—that I might pursue. I’ve been so involved with the book project for the last few years that this summer is really my first chance to explore new topics in earnest. In general though, I’m looking to continue work in urban environments in the nineteenth century as well as ideas of environmental purity.
Catherine McNeur’s book Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City will be published this fall by Harvard University Press and is available for pre-order at Powell’s, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. To learn more about her teaching and research, visit www.catherinemcneur.com.