American Studies 334
Urban America
Roger Williams University
GHH 108
M, Th  3:30 - 4:50
Spring, 2011
Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D
Office: GHH 215
Hours: T, Th 9:00-10:30
M, W 1:00-2:00
Phone:   (401) 254-3230
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)

The URL for the class website is
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:

Why these particular books?

Jane Jacobs, 1916 - 2006
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
Click for a biography of Ray Suarez
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.
Visit the website of Get Urban

These should be purchased and added to your personal library:

       Random House, 1972

The Free Press, 1999

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.
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.

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

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.

Attendance Policy:

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.