Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been
a favorite of mine for twenty-five years or more.  Jacobs challenges the
doom sayers who wail about what terrible places cities are.  She
challenges the orthodox view of city planners of the middle 20th centuries,
whose theories of “Urban Renewal” did so much damage to vast swaths
of the fabric of the city.  Her thesis is that planners had never understood
how cities actually work, and as you’ll see simply by perusing the table of
contents, she wants to tell us how things as simple as sidewalks function
far beyond places of passage from point x to point y.  She will also help
us to understand the nature of urban neighborhoods, where the
residential space is as important as the commercial space is.

American Studies 334 Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D
Urban America    Office:                     CAS 110
Roger Williams University Hours:     T, Th,  9:30 - 11:00
Wednesday, 6:45 - 9:30    W 5:30 - 6:45
CAS 228    F 12:00-1:00
Fall Semester, 2005    Phone:     (401) 254-3230
E-mail:  amst334_urban@msn.com
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Like New England and The South, this course on Urban America seeks to explore the relationship between culture and environment. Unlike those two courses, this course directs our attention to a specific type of environment, rather than to a region of the country. Since at least the days of Thomas Jefferson, Americans have had a love-hate relationship with cities. We will want to explore this ambiguous attitude. First, however, we'll have to understand what a city is: how, as a made thing, it represents planning and thinking, and aesthetic values. Then we can proceed to look at ways individuals and groups have reacted to this unique type of environment.

The course has been thoroughly revised since the last time I taught it in 2003.  Three of the books for the course have been replaced.  There are a number of reasons behind this revision.  First, my sense is that fewer and fewer Roger Williams University students are very well acquainted with urban places.  Most now live in suburban or even exurban communities.  This very unfamiliarity with  cities, large or small, famous or obscure, reinforces many of the negative city stereotypes.  I’ve chosen some new books which will both explore and to some extent counter those stereotypes.  Second, as more and more consumers compete for smaller and smaller supplies of energy, many analysts are beginning to question whether American-style suburbs are going to be sustainable much longer.  If these men and women are correct this generation may be the last suburban generation, and coming to grips with urban life may be a task many of them will face.  Finally, there are a number of new tools which are available for exploring cities... not only the central business districts, but the neighborhoods, as well.  We’ll be using these tools often, and we’ll learn to use these tools together.
  • This course should be considered experimental.  It may head in quite unpredictable directions. 
  • Students in it will have to be both flexible and self-motivating.  The best of them will also seize the initiative and explore the possibilities of what we’re going to do with me.  Some students are not comfortable in this kind of an environment. 
  • If you are a student who needs lots of structure and specific and predictable outcomes, you may want to consider taking another course instead of this one. 
  • On the other hand, if this sounds like a chance for you to break new intellectual ground, and you can trust me to be fair and flexible in my assessments, then this course could be just the thing for you.
As is the case in all my courses (and has been the case since 1972), the course introduction serves as a broad overview of the semester, but the actual syllabus is constructed on a week by week basis.  Also, as has been the case since 2000, each course has a website which supplements and enriches the syllabus.  Shortly I shall stop distributing the paper version (there will be printable version available on the website) and students will be responsible for going to the website and locating the work for the next class themselves. 
The URL for the class website is http://amst430urban.homestead.com.

At the left of the home page and every other page is the navigation calendar.  Click on the date to discover the week’s work
Books for the course:

These should be purchased and added to your personal library:

Jacobs, Jane
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Random House, 1972

Isenberg, Alison
Downtown America
University of Chicago Press, 2004

Chudacoff, Howard
Major Problems in Urban and Suburban History.
Houghton-Mifflin, 2005

Terkel, Studs
Division Street America
Publisher: New Press 1993

There will be other things I’ll ask you to read as well.  These will be drawn from the nearly endless list of resources available on the Internet.
Most Americans equate the Central Business
District or “Downtown” with the idea of cities,
and they  assume that “downtown” has
always existed in the form in which it exists
today.  Alison Isenberg’s Downtown America
challenges that idea.  Her book will introduce
us to the men and women who actually
created the modern “downtown”.  Through this
book, we’ll learn why they made the choices
they did, and what some of the consequences
of those choices were. 

Howard Chudacoff is a prominent historian of Urban
America, and Major Problems in Urban and Suburban
History constitutes his selection of writings about American
cities and the suburbs which depend on them.  We will not
be reading all of this book.  We’ll rather pick and choose
which “problems” to investigate.  I should say at this time
that “problem” in the sense Chudacoff uses the word is not
a problem of the city (crime, grime, etc. etc.) but an
intellectual problem in interpreting and understanding

Now more than 90 years old and going strong,
Studs Terkel practically invented oral history
as an art form.  Division Street:  America
is another of my favorite books.  Through it,
Terkel paints a fascinating picture of daily life
in the city of Chicago, told in the words of
those who struggle, with greater or lesser
success, to “solve” the puzzle of life the city
gives them.  Division Street is a real
Chicago Street, but the title is also meta-
phorical: every city has many Division Streets. 
City dwellers are divided by race, by ethnicity,
by wealth, and other factors as well. 
This book will help us see those divisions
through the eyes of persons who are
challenged by them.

Work for the Course.
The work of the course falls into three overlapping sections.

The Cities (Alphabetical Order)

Each city is linked to its official website.  Browse around.  Remember, however, that the information contained is going to be somewhat selective.  No city likes to air too much dirty linen in public.

The reason I’ve selected these particular cities is that there is unique data available for all of them.  I am willing to entertain the suggestion of other cities in which groups might be interested, as long as students realize that certain kinds of things would not be as easily obtained. 
There are nineteen cities listed, and I expect no more than 9 groups . . .  This should keep anyone from having to work with a city they absolutely don’t want to work with.  I’ll have more information about this project for you shortly.  I want to form the groups by the end of class on September 7, and I’d like to have the cities chosen by those groups by September 14. I’d like the first groups to present by the end of October.  So, roughly, we’ll finish Part I of the course by midterm-time, and then work in parts II and III for the rest of the term.  I’m expecting reports to run  about 20 to 30 minutes or so, so we’ll be able to do two a week, sometimes three, as necessary.
Evaluation and Grading:

I’ve charted a very ambitious course for us.  If it should turn out that this is too ambitious, I’ll make corrections, but I’m going to expect everyone’s best effort in this class, which is truly going to be a collaborative project if it works well.  I’m raring to go, and I hope you are, as well
Attendance Policy:

Academic Honesty

Most of you probably encountered Immanuel Kant’s What is Enlightenment in your Core 102 Class.  If not, it is worth a quick reading, and This LINK will bring you to it.  Kant practically defines “enlightenment” as a product of the courage to use one’s own mind.  Simply put, lacking that courage, one’s learning suffers, and one’s contribution to the learning of others is diminished.  Consequently, this course, like all Roger Williams University courses, subscribes to the University statement on plagiarism and issues of academic honesty generally.  These are found in the most recent copy of the University Catalogue, or on line HERE.