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.
Isenberg and Jacobs suggest 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 Cities themselves.
Suarez was for many years a popular host of National
Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation. 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.
Most Americans equate the Central 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.
The Week's Work
American Studies 334
Roger Williams University
T, F 3:30 - 4:50
Spring Semester, 2008
Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D
Office: CAS 110
Hours: T, 9:30 - 11:00
W 2:00 - 3:00
M, F 1:00 - 2:00
Phone: (401) 254-3230
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 twice since the last first 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, as it has in every previous offering.
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.
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.)
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 constructed on a week by week basis. Also, as has been the case since 2000, is 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. (If thete'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
These should be purchased and added to your personal library:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Random House, 1972
University of Chicago Press, 2004
The Old Neighborhood: What we Lost in the Great
Suburban Migration 1966-1999
New York: The Free Press, 1999
Get Urban: The Complete Guide to City Living
Dulles, VA: 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.
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 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. Read her obituary in the Washington Post by clicking on her picture, above.
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. 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.
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. In
In Part Two, we’ll study aspects of urban life in America from both a historical an contemporary point of view. We’ll look at the historic development of “downtown,” and at “downtown” in contemporary America, as well. We’ll also begin to look at new ways of living an urban life, and at the kinds of efforts which are going into reviving the idea of cities as good places to live and raise families.
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 30 students, which means at a minimum six groups of five students each. . Each group 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.
Evaluation and Grading:
Midterm Examination (Take-home) on Jacobs, and possibly some of Isenberg, depending on how things go: 25% of final grade.
Final Examination (Take-home) on sections of Isenberg 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).
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 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 1/26 of a student’s potential contribution to the group. Four unexcused absences well 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. 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.
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.
I'm not quite ready to announce the list of cities yet. I'm writing this between Christmas and New Year's Day like a good industrious worker bee, and I want to give you a chance to participate in city selection. I will be enabling Blackboard for this course very shortly. When I do, 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. I'm going to provide you all with tables of contents for some of them sometime during the January break. This will help you take some control of the direction this course takes.