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The Week's Work

American Studies 334
Urban America
Roger Williams University
T, TH 12:30 -1:50
GHH 105
Fall, 2009
Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D
Office: GWH 215
Hours: T, 11:00-12:30
M, W, F,  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 f offered the course, many students were Historic Preservatiopn majors.  Now the course attracts a broader group of students.  Consequtently 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.

  • This course should always be considered espreimental. It may head in quite unpredictable directions, as it has in every previous offering. The more students take ownership of the course, the more this is true.

  • 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
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:

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

  • Ford, Larry R. Cities and Buildings: Skyscrapers, Skid Rows       and Suburbs  Johns Hopkins, 1994

  • Suarez, Ray,  The Old Neighborhood: What we Lost in the     Great Suburban Migration 1966-1999  
New York: The Free Press, 1999

   * Ezell, Kyle,  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, 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.
I’ve added Larry Ford’s Cities and Buildings this year, primarily as a companion to the Jacobs book.  Jacobs deliberately chose not to illustrate her book, figuring that the book would work best if people actually looked at real cities rather than photographs of them.  All her points and principles could be observed in a few strategically placed walks.  Well, so far so good.  But what happens when people neither
visit cities or walk? (You’ll see Jacobs doesn’t like cars very much).  Ford’s book is well illustrated, and that along with some other resources I’ll introduce to you, will provide some tools for your analytical imagination.
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
Click for a biography of Ray Suarez
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 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.  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
Work for the Course.

The work of the course falls into three 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:

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.  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 by clicking on this link.
Prowl around a little.  What can you find?

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