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!

UHA 2014: In the Rearview Mirror

Space and Time at the Urban History Association

A guest post by Andrew Needham.

I knew when I got the UHA’s conference program that I was in trouble. Five sessions a day, 11 concurrent panels in each session. How to choose between, say at 10:15 on Friday morning, the War on Poverty, Post-War Latino History, Spatial Change in the Mid-Twentieth Century US City, and Paths to Sustainability, all things that I’m centrally interested in in my own work. I didn’t want to be one of those people traipsing in and out of panels, a determination which, apart from interrupting my friend Andrew Highsmith’s conclusion by literally knocking over a chair on the way into his panel, I followed. I generally chose a panel and stuck to it.

And the conference exceeded my expectations. I did not see a single mediocre paper, not to mention attend a disappointing panel, the entire weekend. It’s clear that, as the packed room for the retrospective on Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier demonstrated, the work in postwar metropolitan history that has followed from, extended upon, and challenged the model laid forth in that book has moved in incredibly interesting and provocative directions, directions that the packed panel on municipal bonds (!) demonstrated have the potential to draw exciting conclusions from seemingly mundane aspects of urban fiscal policy.

In particular, the breadth of work on postwar Latino urban history demonstrated the real fruits of combining the transnational and the spatial turns in urban history. I’ll admit to having been skeptical of the transnational turn, thinking it often amounted to a way to combine research with travel destinations. Who wouldn’t want to work Berlin, Paris, and Buenos Aires into their study of housing policy? But the work being done by scholars mapping the intersection of Latin American and US urban history made me see the spatial possibilities of transnational metropolitan history anew. Given patterns of circular migration and bi-nationality, should we think of San Juan and Lawrence, Mass., as parts of the same metropolis, as Llana Barber suggested on Friday? As Julio Capo asked in the same panel, how did performances of gender and sexuality learned in postwar Havana change and retain continuity in postwar Miami? Or, as Amy Offner illustrated on Saturday, ideas about housing and self-help readily crossed the spaces between the US and Colombia in the postwar years. And this is only a sampling of the papers that made me think about the spatial connections within and between metropolitan areas in really exciting new ways.

On the train on my way home, I posted on Facebook that I thought the UHA was the single best academic conference that I had ever attended. And I still think that’s true … for me. While my phone immediately started buzzing with “likes” (I was in the silent car, like all good historians), it also buzzed with dissent from people whose scholarly work focuses on 19th century cities or earlier, saying that they felt that there was little for them at the conference. And perusing the program, I have to admit they’re probably right. This isn’t at all an indictment of the program committee, which did a phenomenal job of putting a terrific program together and made broad efforts to reach out to historians examining earlier cities. (And it didn’t help that the UHA overlapped with Ethnohistory and US Intellectual History, two places where such historians have established homes). It is, however, a warning for how we can shape the state of the field as well as the conference program in the future. Going forward, the UHA should make an effort to focus on time as well as space (an ironic victory of the spatial turn in history). I think this means not only doing outreach to make sure that there are panels concerning ancient and early modern cities, but also to make sure that we talk to each other across temporalities, including those historians in plenary sessions as well as panels like the discussion of Crabgrass Frontier. That book, after all, locates “the first extant expression of the suburban ideal” in a cuneiform letter to the King of Persia in 539 BCE. We should remember Crabgrass Frontier’s temporal breadth, lest we end up only talking to each other.

Andrew Needham is an associate professor of history at New York University.  His new book from Princeton University Press, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest, explores the role of coal on Native American land in the development of the metropolitan Southwest.

Digital History at UHA

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The digital transformation of historical scholarship has been underway for several years and there has been a special effort to feature digital scholarship at UHA 2014.

A note on Twitter: if you’re tweeting the conference or a session, please use the hashtag #UHA2014 — it will allow everyone who is following or searching that tag to keep track of all the goings-on in Philadelphia.  Presenters should realize it’s possible that any papers or sessions could be live-tweeted.  I’ll be keeping track of things and feel free to follow along for retweets or other conversations at @lwinling.

Several panels you might be interested in:

Session 56 • Sat. 10:15‐11:45 am

Recent Work in Digital Urban History

The ARCH, Rm. 108 (First Floor)

Nathan Connolly, Johns Hopkins University — Nationalizing the HOLC Security Maps

Emily Thompson, Princeton University — Digital History, Sonic Archives, and The Roaring Twenties

Christopher Manning, Loyola University Chicago — The NOLA Oral History Project

Chair and Commentator: Mark Tebeau Arizona State University

Session 20 • Fri. 12:45‐2:15 pm

Roundtable: The Long View of Digital Urban History

Williams Hall, Rm. 1 (Ground Floor)

Colin Gordon University of Iowa

Susan Lawrence Ohio State University

Stephen Robertson George Mason University

J. Mark Souther Cleveland State University

Moderator: LaDale Winling Virginia Tech

Session 83 • Sat. 4:15‐5:45 pm

Directions in Digital History

The ARCH, Rm. 108 (First Floor)

Greg Hise University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Form and Landscape: Representing Cities in a Digital Age

Colin Gordon University of Iowa
Patterns of Urban Decline and Union Decline in St. Louis and Chicago, 1940‐2000

Elihu Rubin Yale University
Interactive Crown Street: Collective Memory and Conflicting Narratives in Public History

Chair and Commentator: Philip Ethington University of Southern California

UHA 2014: Where to Eat in Philadelphia

Prime Meats

Guru of coffee culture Bryant Simon has compiled an impressive list of Philadelphia eating establishments for your enjoyment and nourishment during the Urban History conference. Download the Word file here.

Philadelphia has recently become a culinary delight and, while no Philly restaurants have Michelin stars, it does have the most recent winner of the Top Chef competition in Nicholas Elmi.  Indeed, historian Stephen Nepa focuses his research on culinary culture and Philadelphia, writing a dissertation on the topic.

Talking to Journalists about Urban History

A guest post by Elaine Lewinnek

Since my book came out last May, I have been stumblingly discovering how to talk to reporters about it. Chatting with one reporter researching African-American suburbanization, I explained that early Chicago was racially diverse; the lines of the Black Belt did not harden until the Great Migration. “Okay,” she replied, “What’s a Black Belt? And what’s the Great Migration?”

Her question made me pause because I did not realize that I had been speaking gobbledygook. A friend joked that it is good she asked, since, without that query, she might have ended up writing about avian martial arts. Of course, I would not use terms like “Black Belt” or “Great Migration” without any explanation if I were speaking to an introductory class of first-year college students – but I had forgotten that many reporters and their readers are also novice students of urban history. So many journalistic questions stem from amazingly attentive reading that it can be easy to forget that most journalists are the equivalent of first-year students, or at least their readers are.

Another reporter told me that one of the most fascinating things he learned from my book is that white people were not always white. That is indeed an important insight but, of course, it is not my original idea. Other terrific scholars buttress my argument that it was largely through notions of twentieth-century suburban-style property ownership that Chicago’s European immigrants consolidated their whiteness. Yet it feels slightly foolish to recommend numerous other books to reporters. Most reporters do not have the time to read a half-dozen book recommendations.

This may be a special challenge in an interdisciplinary field like urban studies. We build on others’ scholarship, from geography to history to sociology and race studies and economics. And, because of our space-based rootedness, we write things of interest to a general audience. I am curious to hear from other urban historians: how do you address a wider audience without overly simplifying your ideas?

While accommodating diverse levels of background knowledge is one challenge, another is the pressures of presentism. I can tell reporters that the patterns established in Chicago as early as 1920 lasted throughout the twentieth century, reinforced by new policies. I can also explain that many benefits of housing, from health to home-equity, linger for generations. I can refer reporters to other books that carry the story forward to the present — so I am particularly thankful that Mary Barr’s analysis of the contemporary racial politics of Evanston is coming out soon. Each of these is a partial solution, though. If you write about urban history before 1950, how do you explain to others how it matters? Even if you write about urban history before 2000, or before yesterday, I suspect this may be a problem. Journalists’ job is to explain today.

It is a terrific problem to have, I know. It is part of the welcome challenge of learning how to communicate ten years of research and 200 pages of dense prose to a wider audience. It is also one of the things I did not learn in graduate school, since, then, I did not have a book to promote. So I am learning it now, stumbling through, and curious to hear how others address these issues.

Elaine Lewinnek is an associate professor of American studies at California State University-Fullerton, and the author of the recent book The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.

Guest Post: Conference Buzz

Howard Gillette has been talking up the Philadelphia UHA meeting.  Cross-posted from WHYY’s Newsworks site:

Next month some 400 historians from around the country will converge on Philadelphia for the biannual meeting of the Urban History Association, Oct 9-12. The topics of their discussion will range widely, but framing the four days of exchange will be opportunities for participants to explore directly signs of new life in the region in the aftermath of post-industrial decline.

An opening tour on Thursday, Oct 9 will start at The Navy Yard, a 1,200 acre site well into the process of creating a mixed-use campus based on historic preservation, sustainability, and smart growth. After visiting Urban Outfitters, a home-grown business success story, the caravan will travel to North Philadelphia to examine the effects of new transit-oriented development before moving on to review sites of revitalization in Northern Liberties.

On the last day of the conference, participants will be able to tour Camden, still the nation’s poorest city. They will encounter signs of decay, no doubt. But the emphasis that day, as Mayor Dana Redd and Camden Redevelopment Agency director Saundra Ross Johnson will point out, is new investment: in the neighborhood around Cooper Hospital, at the Kroc recreational center in East Camden, due to open officially October 14th, and at Campbell Soup, where a revised master plan promises to connect the Fortune 500 company’s campus to the rest of the city.

The cumulative effect of these new investments may prove surprising, even to those living in the area. And they hold promise that the Philadelphia region may finally have turned a corner from the devastating effect of a generation’s worth of disinvestment.

Historians know that the fate of cities lie in a cumulative process of decision-making over time. Many of the actions now just taking form will have consequences for a long time to come. Parts of Philadelphia and Camden have much in common, in high levels of poverty and attendant social problems, including high levels of crime. New structures alone do not solve that problem. Investment must bring with it expanded opportunity.

Among the questions they will be asking is what the effect new investment might have on poverty rates in both cities? With regions increasingly seen as the engines of a modern economy, are Pennsylvania and New Jersey working effectively together to address the array of social issues that stem from such concentrated urban poverty?

The decision of the Philadelphia 76ers to locate their new practice facility in Camden is a good case in point. The team had all but decided to locate the new structure at the Navy Yard, literally a stone’s throw from where they play their home games. But the high level of incentives New Jersey offered proved more than the city could offer, and team officials chose Camden instead.

The decision may prove beneficial to the region over time if the 76ers prove good neighbors, not just by hiring locally, but establishing its own civic engagement with city residents. In short, the decision will be considered a good one, if the site has a positive multiplier effect.

Campbell Soup also extracted economic concessions from the state when it threatened to move from its corporate headquarters on Camden’s Admiral Wilson Boulevard. So far, the main result has been the demolition of the historic Sears Building, without any new benefit to the people living in Camden. Revisions in the plan of a stand-alone suburban style office park, promise something more in the way of city benefit, but details at this point remain sketchy.

At the Navy Yard, the process of investment is overseen by a semi-governmental entity, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation. In North Philadelphia, the actions highlighted on the urban history tour have been spurred by grass-roots community development corporations with support from outside investors. In Camden, the state has been emphasizing tax credits as a spur to investment.
Three different parts of the region highlight three different kinds of development. With the economic challenges at hand, none of the existing approaches need be emphasized to the exclusion of the other. Yet the tough questions should be the same for each site: what are the immediate and long-range effects of such development? And how can such efforts prove sustainable in the effort to return our cities to the magnets for building wealth they have been historically.
It will be up to future historians of the region to make that judgment.

Howard Gillette is author of Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City and is professor of history emeritus at Rutgers Camden.

Urban History Podcast #3, Eric Avila

Podcast interviewers Andrew Needham and Lily Geismer talk to Eric Avila about his new book, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City. (UMN Press, Amazon). Moving beyond traditional notions of freeway revolts, Avila’s work examines how freeways were incorporated into popular culture, art, and commemmoration simply because of their presence in the the lives and landscapes of millions of people.

2014 UHA Dissertation Prize

The winner of this year’s dissertation prize is David H. Schley for “Making the Capitalist City: The B & O Railroad and Urban Space in Baltimore, 1827-1877,” completed at Johns Hopkins University, 2013.

In “Making the Capitalist City,” David H. Schley eloquently outlines the complicated relationship between the country’s first railroad and its terminal city. This well-written and thoroughly researched dissertation captivates as it examines the clashes and negotiations between the nations first railroad, use of city streets, and public space in the 19th-century built environment. He argues that “rather than simply ‘annihilating’ space, the transformative powers of the railroad developed amidst political conflicts over the use of city streets.”

David Schley is a lecturer at NYU Shanghai.

2014 Arnold Hirsch Article Prize

Patricia Acerbi is the winner of the 2014 Arnold Hirsch Prize for the best article published in 2013.

AcerbiPhotoUHAPatricia Acerbi’s essay, “’A Long Poem of Walking’: Flaneurs, Vendors, and Chronicles of Post-abolition Rio de Janeiro,” brings together social and cultural analysis to discuss the emergence of citizenship and modernity in Rio de Janeiro following the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the establishment of the first republic in 1889. Specifically, her essay provides a creatively fresh take on the concept of the flaneur — not as a product of European bourgeois anomie but as an engaged observer and translator of the emerging republican cityscape captured on daily walks through the city. In Acerbi’s account, the peddler — often a former slave or new immigrant — and the chronicler — the middle-class urban writer or literary journalist — embodied a new urban modern identity that was constantly in motion and formed through the quotidian encounters with the city as they moved between the center and margins of urban life. Rather than seeing these two figures as inhabiting worlds separated by distance, race, and class, Acerbi identifies them as Henri Lefebvre’s citadin — as citizens formed by their shared urban inhabitance. Republic officials did not regard these figures equally, however, as the vendor evoked the recent memory and history of slavery and was conceptually linked to urban problems that officials wished to contain or eradicate. As Acerbi points out, the chroniclers, whose literary and journalistic accounts of these urban denizens embraced their lives and work as a welcome adaptation of the traditional to the productive needs of the city, played a crucial mediating force in legitimizing them as urban laborers critical to the commercial and social life of the modern cityscape. By emphasizing these points, Acerbi’s article sheds light on and contributes to a better understanding of the emergence of alternative notions of urban citizenship in Latin America.

Patricia Acerbi is assistant professor of history at Russell Sage College. The full citation to her article is Patricia Acerbi, “’A Long Poem of Walking’: Flaneurs, Vendors, and Chronicles of Post-abolition Rio de Janeiro,” The Journal of Urban History 40 (January 2014): 97-115.

This text was provided by the UHA Prize Committee for the 2014 Arnold Hirsch Award for Best Article.