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.
Like all my courses, this course has a website which supplements the syllabus. Shortly I shall stop distributing the paper version and students will be responsible for going to the website and locating the work for the next class themselves.
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. What's worse, we'll begin with the most difficult of the books.
Beauregard, Robert, Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of
U. S. Cities New York: Routledge Press, 2003
Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
New York: Vintage Books, 1961, 1989
Lopate, Philip (ed.) Writing New York: A Literary Anthology
New York: Washington Square Press, 2002
Terkel, Studs, Division Street: America
New York: The New Press, 1993
Maupin, Armistead, 28 Barbary Lane:
The Tales of the City Omnibus
New York: Harper Collins, 1990
The first two books are theoretical and analytical. Robert Beauregard's book, Voices of Decline, looks at how leaders of public opinion have shaped popular culture's attitudes toward cities in the twentieth century. Since the days of the Roman Empire, if not before, cities have always been places of noise, dirt, discord, and danger as well as places of opportunity, excitement, innovation, creativity, and wealth. Some Americans never warmed to cities, but it wasn't until the early 20th century that the majority of American opinion makers began to question whether cities could ever be "redeemed" and transformed into positive forces in the ongoing American culture. Beauregard will chart the course of the argument for us.
The second book, 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.
We will complete our initial work in the first two books by the middle of October. Then we'll move to three books of very different character. Each of these, in one form or other, tries to capture some of the essence of three of the most prominent American Cities. We will not read all of any of these books. I think that many of you will decide that they are keepers, however, put them into your personal libraries, and enjoy them for years to come.
Robert Beauregard (Left) author of Voices of Decline, and Jane Jacobs (Right) author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
There is no mystery about the subject matter of Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. Don't let the word literary throw you. This book is a compendium of many different forms of expression from factual reportage to poetry. The reviewer for Our Town said
Engrossing. . . .You'll be hooked. . . .Part birthday card, part love letter to the city. . . .Like the city itself, WRITING NEW YORK is big and overbearing and reveals the most in places where you'd least expect it to
We won't read all 1023 pages, but concentrate on voices, famous and not so famous, from the twentieth century.
Philip Lopate, Editor of this prize-winning anthology
Now more than 90 years old, 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.
Our final book, 28 Burberry Lane, takes its title from an apartment house on a fictional street in San Francisco. It is actually a three-volume omnibus collection of three novels, Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, and Further Tales of the City, originally published between 1978 and 1982, and later turned into mini-series on PBS.
These tales were first printed in a newspaper column, similar to the way that Charles Dickens published The Pickwick Papers in the 19th century. Armistead Maupin chronicles the lives of young urbanites, gay and straight, and some not so young urbanites, as well, as they are encouraged, enthralled, appalled, beaten, and resurrected by the challenges of living in San Francisco. We won't read all of this one either, but I couldn't decide which of the volumes you'd enjoy most, so I present them all. We'll read a goodly bit of the first, in order to acquaint ourselves with the characters, and then select other episodes with which to work. We'll also watch some episodes from the PBS series
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. In
Part Two, we'll study three American Cities, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, through the resources given us by Lopate, Terkel, and Maupin.
Part three will constitute a series of reports on key American Cities which class teams will present. The class will be divided into groups of four to five members each. Each group will prepare a presentation on one of the cities from the list below. 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 of these 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.
The Cities are:
Salt Lake City
There are thirteen cities listed, and I expect no more than 10 groups . . . This should keep anyone from having to work with a city they absolutely don't want to work with. I'll have more information about this project for you shortly. I want to form the groups by the end of class on September 15. I'd like the first groups to present by the end of October. So, roughly, we'll finish Part I of the course by midterm-time, and then work in parts II and III for the rest of the term. I'm expecting reports to run about 30 minutes or so, so we'll be able to do two a week, sometimes three, as necessary.
Evaluation and Grading:
Midterm Examination (Take-home) on Beauregard and Jacobs, 25% of final grade.
Final Examination (Take-home) on sections of Lopate, Terkel, and Maupin 35% of final grade.
Project: 30% of Final Grade, divided into two parts . . . Individual contribution (25%) and overall group (5%).
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