American Studies 373.02
Urban America
Roger Williams University
CAS 127
M, W, F  9:00 - 9:50
Fall, 2014
Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D
Office: GHH 215
Hours:  F, 2:00-4:00
TH 11:00-1:00 or by Appointment
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:


These should be purchased and added to your personal library:

Rybczynski, Witold;
City Life
Simon & Schuster Touchstone Book, 1996

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

Terkel, Studs
Division Street America
New Press, 2006

Howells, William Dean
The Rise of Silas Lapham
New York, Penguin Books, 1983
Kindle Edition Free at
Also available on the Internet at Project Gutenberg

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, 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 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.

If you’ve taken courses with me before, you’ll note that I quite often include a work of fiction in the course.  William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham is about 19th century Boston.  I chose it because I’m assuming that many of you know Boston at least in part, and because much of Boston for example Beacon Street and Commonwealth Boulevard are still much the same as they were in Howells’ day–at least physically. 

Depending on the kind of Spring we turn out to have, perhaps I'll schedule a Boston walkaround for some Saturday.  Would you enjoy that?  Some of the social problems about which Howells writes may still be with us, in one form or another.  Be warned, there are no ZOMBIES in the book, no vampires, either.
Work for the Course.

The work of the course falls into three 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 and examples provided by Witold Rybczynski.

   * In Part Two, we’ll study aspects of urban life in America from both a historical and contemporary point of view.  We’ll look at the historic development of the various elements of a city and at those elements in contemporary America, as well. We’ll read a novel about Boston as it was back in 1884.  We’ll see something of the social issues prevalent then, among them the difference between “old” and “new” money, and see if we can discover what’s changed and what’s remained the same in the intervening years. 

   * Part three will constitute a series of reports on key American Cities which will be presented by individual students or small teams no more than 3 in each.   Currently my roster shows 14 students  Each group or individual will prepare a presentation on one of the cities from the list I will publish shortly.  The presentations will include something of the  history, cultural life, characteristics of the contemporary population in terms of such things as wealth, education, and ethnicity, and an assessment of what it’s like to live in that particular place at this point in the country’s life.  No two cities are alike, and therefore no two presentations have to be exactly alike.  I’ll let the class divide itself into teams.  I’ll let the teams indicate their choices of cities, but I may have to do some assigning of places, if too many want to choose the same place.  This time around I’m going to allow students to choose from some smaller cities as well as larger ones.  For those interested, there may be the chance to try something new--a Website for your project.

I've e-mailed everyone a list of potential cities.  I hope to finalize choices very shortly.
Evaluation and Grading:

   * Midterm Examination (Take-home) on Rybczynski and at least some of Jacobs: 25% of final grade.

   * Final Examination (Take-home) on sections of Jacobs, 25% of final grade.

  * City Project: 30% of Final Grade,  Students may work either as individuals or as members of a small group (no more than three)  The project will take the form of building a website building using I’ve been playing with it, and it looks like fun.  Group members will each provide a page of the website constituting their contribution to the project, as well as contribute to the home page.  No matter what the particular portion is, a bibliography will constitute part of the write-up.  Please take a look at the roster on the bridges page, especially if you're considering forming a group.  I'd like to have those groups started as soon as possible.

   * A project based on Howells.  15% This will be something in the line of a book report, but will also involve looking at contemporary Boston.  More on that later. I'm thinking of a field trip, as I mentioned above.

   * Intangibles 5% (Attendance, participation, 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.
Attendance Policy:

   * 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:   The class meets three times a week.  Consequently each absence deprives the class of 1/39 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 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).  If you decide to work individually, I'll be happy to treat you to a coffee and discuss your project with you, as well.
There is a Bridges 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.
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 above is a link.  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.
(See p. 65)
Academic Integrity Pledge

We, the students of Roger Williams University, commit ourselves to academic integrity. We promise to pursue the highest ideals of academic life, to challenge ourselves with the most rigorous standards, to be honest in any academic endeavor, to conduct ourselves responsibly and honorably, and to assist one another as we live and work together in mutual support.
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