This course on Urban America seeks to explore the relationship between culture and environment. 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 continues to evolve every time I teach it as I seek to respond to changes in the students who elect to take it. The first time I offered the course, many students were Historic Preservation majors. Now the course attracts a broader group of students. Consequently I’ve changed the focus in three ways. 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 negative city stereotypes which have been part of our culture since the days of Jefferson. 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.
Books for the Course
Rybczynski, WitoldCity Life
Simon & Schuster Touchstone Book, 1996, Paperback, Kindle, 256 pp.
Jacobs, Jane The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Random House, 1972, Paperback, 458 pp.
Isenberg, Alison Downtown America
U of Chicago Press 2004, PB and e-book from U. of Chicago. 464 pp.
Suarez, RayThe Old Neighborhood
Free Press (division of Simon & Shuster) 1999,272 pp.
Terkel, Studs,Division Street America
The New Press, 2006 Paperback.416 pp.
Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone
Simon and Schuster Touchstone Book, 2000, 544 pp.
Oldenburg, Ray, The Great Good Place
Marlowe & Company, 1999, 368 pp.
As you can see, there is quite a bit of reading for this course. I hope you'll find the variety interesting and stimulating. At times, we'll be using more than one book at a time. Don't be afraid to read ahead a little when you have some slack time.
Why these particular books?
What is a City? What does it mean to be urban? If one were to ask the proverbial “man (or woman) on the street” he/she would probably reflect on the size first. Cities are big places with millions of people in them–Places like New York or Los Angeles in this country, or London or Calcutta elsewhere. Witold Rybczynski’s City Life will help disabuse us of that idea. Is Philadelphia a City? Was it urban at the time of the American Revolution? Today’s Bristol has about the same population as Philadelphia had back then. How many would call Bristol a city, or urban?
Get used to clicking on pictures. I usually hide something behind them.
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. After a long and productive life, Ms. Jacobs died in April, 2006.
"Downtown America cuts beneath the archetypal story of downtown's rise and fall and offers a dynamic new story of urban development in the United States. Moving beyond conventional narratives, Alison Isenberg shows that downtown's trajectory was not dictated by inevitable free market forces or natural life-and-death cycles. Instead, it was the product of human actors—the contested creation of retailers, developers, government leaders, architects, and planners, as well as political activists, consumers, civic clubs, real estate appraisers, even postcard artists. Throughout the twentieth century, conflicts over downtown's mundane conditions—what it should look like and who should walk its streets—pointed to fundamental disagreements over American values." Click on the link to read the full description at the University of Chicago Press. For the lyrics to the song hidden behind the cover picture,CLICK HERE.
Suarez never gets angry on the air, but he does in ''The Old Neighborhood.'' And with good reason. He has traveled through the older cities of the Northeast and Midwest, surveying the wreckage of urban America -- the abandoned warehouses and vacant lots, the block after block of boarded-up row houses, the parks strewn with broken glass, the atmosphere of siege. These scenes are familiar enough, if only from the freeway or the commuter train. Surrounded by the buzz of manufactured scandal, many of us are unable to know a real scandal when we see one.
But Suarez is not inured. These were thriving neighborhoods once, he insists. Why should we accept their disintegration as somehow inevitable, in keeping with the great American tradition of moving on and starting over, he wonders. Only real estate agents and free-market fundamentalists believe that Americans simply choose cathedral ceilings and traffic jams. (New York Times Book Review.)
"Division Street: America is Studs Terkel’s look at twentieth century urban life in and around Chicago. He included interviews with immigrants from other lands, like George Drossos from Greece, and those who migrated to Chicago looking for work such as Eva Barnes from rural Illinois and Mrs. Thacker and her son, Danny from Kentucky. Terkel interviews urban dwellers that aim high (Lucy Jefferson and Judy Huff) and high school drop-outs who are just “keeping on” (Jimmy White and Lilly Lowell). Street-wise Kid Pharaoh offers insight on the nature of success and so does Benny Bearskin from his Native American perspective" (From the website where recordings of the interviews are located).
Click on the image to reach a page where you can listen to some of the interviews which became this book.
"In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect.
Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities."
Ray Oldenburg is an urban sociologist who writes about the importance of informal public gathering places. In his book The Great Good Place (1991), Oldenburg demonstrates how and why these places are essential to community and public life, arguing that bars, coffee shops, general stores, and other “third places” are central to local democracy and community vitality. In exploring how these places work and the various roles they serve, Oldenburg offers Placemaking tools and insight that can be useful to individuals and communities everywhere. http://www.pps.org/reference/roldenburg/
Work for the Course.
I would really prefer to meet with you and get to know you a bit before finalizing this. I will email a link to this online syllabus before the semester actually begins. As much as possible, I would like to have us work together planning this course. I do have some objectives upon which I hope we can build this course.
I hope to build with you a usable and fair definition of "urban". At the beginning of the course, I would like everyone to write a paragraph on what "urban" means to him or her. I will also ask each of you to respond to a brief questionnaire about the place you call home . I will be asking each of you things like what institutions and "useful" places are within a reasonable walking distance of your house. I will also ask you if you live in a "neighborhood," if you do, does that neighborhood have a name, and how are its boundaries defined.
I will want to think about size. How large does a place have to be to be considered "Urban"?
I will want to think about change in Urban America during the age of "suburbanization" (Post World-War II until the present). What changes have been good, and what changes have been not so good?
I will ask you to do some research on a particular city, either individually or in small groups. You will help me decide that. The I'll make a list of cities--some of which will be focal points in the books for the course, but not necessarily all of them. I will also ask you if you have particular cities in America which you would like to investigate. To qualify, a city must have at least one daily newspaper on line. Other sources, such as YouTube would also be a good thing. Currently my roster has 24 on it. I think three or four would be the maximum size for those who would like to work in groups.
The Bridges site for the class will have a feature (dropbox) where I will ask to place short reflections from time to time. These will form a basis for class discussions.
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.
* I think it was Woody Allen who once remarked that 90% of success in life can be attributed to simply showing up. On the other hand, none of us is entirely in control of his or her schedule. I try to construct my attendance policy around these two points. I do take attendance, and I expect people to be here. I liberally excuse absences when I’m informed in advance, or when the cause is truly an emergency. I also excuse students who participate in athletics or how are required to attend a field trip for another class. The proper method of informing me of a conflict is by e-mail at the class e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. The class meets twice a week. Consequently each absence deprives the class of 1/26th of a student’s potential contribution to the group. Four unexcused absences will reduce one’s grade by one degree (i.e., from B- to C+)
* If you decide to work in a group it is very important that the group meet frequently. Groups will, by and large, set their own rules. However, I will meet with each group at least once in the course of the semester, at a time mutually agreeable to all. Seeing as there’a a Starbucks in GHH where my office is, I guess I can treat to coffee at these meetings. Each group will choose a leader/contact person (by whatever method the group wishes to use). If you decide to work individually, I'll be happy to treat you to a coffee and discuss your project with you, as well.