Like New England, this course on Urban America seeks to explore the relationship between culture and environment. Unlike New England, 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.
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 syllabus is constructed on a week by week basis. Also, as has been the case since 2000, each of my courses 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. (If there's no technological breakdown, you're seeing this even as I present it to you)
At the left of the home page is the navigation calendar. Click on the date to discover the week’s work
Books for the course:
There is a lot of reading for this course. Be warned! If you don’t enjoy putting your nose in a book on a regular basis, this may not be a good course for you to take. (It seems like I’m giving a lot of warnings here. I don’t want to scare everyone away, but I don’t want anyone to be surprised about the amount of work, either.)
Why these particular books?
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
cities themselves. Suarez was for many years a popular host of National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation. He has visited the Roger Williams University Campus and maybe some of you heard him speak. He will take us to look at inner city neighborhoods in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cleveland, Brooklyn (now a part of New York City, but an independent city in its own right until the mid-19th Century), Washington, DC, and Miami. In each place we’ll meet citizens struggling to save their old neighborhoods or wrestling with the decision of whether to stay or leave.
Finally, we’ll take a look at what some are predicting will be an urban renaissance. There is evidence that this may be happening right now: A number of American cities which lost population throughout the last half of the 20th century have seen that loss abate, and even reverse itself. Ezell’s book will show us some places where this seems to be happening. With luck, we'll have data from the 2010 census to confirm this trend. More may see this happen as gas prices continue to rise and make the economics of commuting less and less affordable. Ezell loves city living, and his book is a Primer on how to Get Urban successfully. We’ll use it for an exercise in the imagination and simulation. More about that later.
This course should always be considered experimental. It may head in quite unpredictable directions, as it has in every previous offering. The more students take ownership of the course, the more this is true.
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
These should be purchased and added to your personal library:
Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Random House, 1972
Suarez, Ray, The Old Neighborhood: What we Lost in the Great Suburban Migration 1966-1999
The Free Press, 1999
Terkel, Studs, Division Street America
New Press 1993
Ezell, Kyle, Get Urban: The Complete Guide to City Living Capital Books, Inc. 2004
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.
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.
Americans began to flee the cities for the suburbs in the years following the end of the Second World War. The pace accelerated with the building of the Interstate Highway System commencing in the late 1950s. Jacobs suggests some reasons why this happened. Ray Suarez’ The Old Neighborhood analyzes first “white flight,” and then later, “black flight” as the more affluent of the citizenry departed for the suburbs, leaving the poorest (and some of the richest) Americans in possession of the
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 metaphorical: 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. Like Jane Jacobs, Terkel had an extraordinarily long and productive life, passing away October 31, 2008, at the ripe old age of 96
Work for the Course.
The work of the course falls into four overlapping sections.
In Part One, we’ll ground ourselves in the tools we’ll use to try to understand American Urban life, including theories proposed by Jane Jacobs.
Part Two, we’ll study aspects of urban life in America from both a historical an contemporary point of view. We'll use Terkel, Suarez and Ezell to help us with this. You'll have a chance to find an urban place ideal for your character and temperament, as well.
Part three will constitute a series of reports on key American Cities which will be presented by teams of from four to five students. Currently my roster shows 29 students, which means at a minimum six groups of five students each.
I'm not quite ready to announce the list of cities yet. I want to give you a chance to participate in city selection. I'm going to create a space where you can introduce yourselves to each other and give some indication of what cities in the United States interest you, which ones you're familiar with, and which ones you'd like to become more familiar with. Each of our texts includes information about specific cities. But I don’t necessarily have to limit your choices to those cities alone.
Evaluation and Grading
Midterm Examination (Take-home) on Jacobs, primarily, plus individual research to explore Jacobs' ideas. 25% of final grade.
Final Examination (Take-home) on Terkel and Suarez, 25% of final grade.
City Project: 25% of Final Grade, divided into two parts . . Individual contribution (20%) and overall group (5%). Each member of the group will write up his/her portion of the project in a form appropriate to what he or she does. No matter what the particular portion is, a bibliography will constitute part of the write-up.
Urban Homesteading Simulation 15%. This exercise, based on Kyle Ezell’s Get Urban, will ask you to examine what kind of urbanite you might like to be (this will make sense once you thumb through the book, but the list includes Post Industrial, Garden, Eclectic, and Blank Canvas) and then choose an appropriate urban place to live...not just a city, but a neighborhood within the city, right down to the street and just maybe even the block or house level. There will be tools available to help you do this. One class towards the end of the semester will be a “housewarming party” for all of you.
Intangibles 10% (Attendance, participation, contribution to your group, and the like).
If you’ve had me before you know that these numbers are flexible and subject to change as the situation evolves. I’m not a scary grader, for those of you who don’t know me yet.
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. The proper method of informing me of a conflict is by email at email@example.com. Please include the course name in the subject line of the e-mail, as this will help me sort things out. The class meets twice a week. Consequently each absence deprives the class of 1/26 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+).
Because group work is an important part of this class, attendance at group meetings is crucial, and dereliction of group responsibilities will result in a grade penalty for the course. 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’s a Starbucks in the palace 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). That person will receive extra credit for the extra responsibilities involved. These will include keeping a diary of the group’s activities and organizing and chairing the class presentation.
There is a Blackboard home for this course, and all written work MUST be turned in that way. You will find many tools available for use through that portal, as well. I’ll introduce them to you early in the semester and reintroduce them to you when the time comes for you to use them.