Like New England and The South, this special topics course in 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.
I'm asking you to purchase five books for this course. We will be reading in several of them simultaneously, but we'll encounter them in roughly this order:
1. Girouard, Mark, Cities and People
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985
If you've had a chance to pick up Cities and People and browse through it, you will have discovered that the United States plays a subordinate role in the story the book tells. The first mention of an American city doesn't occur until after page 250. I chose the book despite this, because I think we need to recognize two things: First, America didn't invent the concept "city," nor did it develop the concept in a vacuum. Second, America is a part of the western world. Asian and African cities are quite different, and we should recognize both the importation of our form of urban life from Europe and the ways we modified that form here. We'll read the whole book, but our strongest emphasis will be on chapters eleven and following.
2. Schuyler, David. The New Urban Landscape: The Redefinition of City Form in
19th Century America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986
When we reach the 19th century, we'll pick up and begin this book in concert with Girouard. Schuyler tells the tale of attempts to transform the face of cities from the dense, disease-ridden places that Jefferson and other Agrarians feared to environments in which American values could flourish. Some of the results of this reform included urban parks and suburbs: an attempt to reconcile, to use Robert Stern's phrase, "The Garden and the Grid". We'll look at a video or two from the Pride of Place series which will clarify some of the concepts in this book.
3. Lopate, Philip (editor), Writing New York: A literary Anthology.
New York: Washington Square Press, 1998
Creative people of all sorts respond to environments of all sorts. When we begin to work with Lopate's anthology, we'll begin to encounter a wide variety of authors as they come to grips with the reality of New York City. The book is a compendium of a wide variety of literary forms, both prose and poetry. Could I have found a book which represented literary encounters with a variety of cities rather than just one I probably would have selected it instead of this one. Every city is not New York, and there are dangers in generalizing from one place to a variety of others. However, opportunities will be provided to explore other places in the course of your work.
4. Teaford, Jon C., The Twentieth-Century American City, 2nd edition.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993
Teaford's study picks up where Schuyler's study leaves off. Pessimism about cities rose and peaked in the 20th century, leaving thinkers to see cities more as problems than as opportunities. The approach is more historical than geographic, so the transition between Schuyler and Teaford can't be entirely seamless, and perhaps the catalogue of city problems is too familiar to us already. Yet we'll see that few gave up on cities entirely. Many more sought to reconstruct and re-engineer them: often quite ruthlessly.
5. Terkel, Studs, Division Street: America
New York: The New Press, 1993
Studs Terkel has been called America's foremost oral historian. I chose this book as a counterpoint to Lopate's Anthology. While literary expression can illuminate the nature of cities, the truth of the matter is that most of the residents in cities are not literary artists. Yet the lives they live individually make up the life of the city collectively, and a sensitive and talented author like Terkel can tell the stories of ordinary people with profound grace and dignity. There are certain writers whom all American Studies students should encounter. Studs Terkel is one of them. His subjects are Chicagoans, but they could be residents of any urban American place.
Work for the Course
This course is new, and as such, there is room for some negotiation and flexibility in determining what kinds of activities can be submitted for grades. The size of the class is small enough so I won't have to retreat into quickly graded examinations which measure little and teach less. At minimum I expect two exams, a reaction paper, and a project will be required. Of course the fewer the number of things, the more each will count. I want to give people the option to be "out and doing," experiencing urban life in a thinking, self-conscious way, and I would like to make credit available for these experiences-either substituting for other activities or "extra credit," but I haven't worked out a formula for this yet. Some possibilities might include an afternoon and evening in Providence, visiting one of the ethnic communities and sharing a meal there, or perhaps a Saturday trip to New York City, joining with the School of Architecture on one of their jaunts there. There will also be three, possibly four films on the Monday Night Penny Arcade series that I want you to see: Fritz Lang's Metropolis, (1927) Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, (1931), Philadelphia Story (1940), and Midnight Cowboy (1969). I'll get back to you with the dates of showing of these.
These will be limited only by your own imaginations. I'd like them to be of a reasonable length (10 pp. or thereabouts), and if possible, presented to the class in some form or other (perhaps as a website... some of you have done this for me in other classes). Some possibilities might include:
1. A presentation on a major American city other than New York or Chicago: here you could look at the city as interpreted in literature and the arts. Cities which would work well for this would include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, Boston, and many others.
2. An art form as it interprets Urban America: Painting, music (urban blues, for example), drama.
3. Ethnic communities and the city (Blacks, Irish, Hispanics, Asians)
4. The City in Journalism and Reform (Lincoln Steffans, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and others.