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. 

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The Week's Work

American Studies 334
Urban America
Roger Williams University
Thursday,     6:45 - 9:30
CAS 228
Fall Semester, 2006 

Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D
Office: CAS 110
Hours:  T, Th,  9:30 - 11:00
  W 2:00 - 3:00
F 12:00 - 1:00
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. 
  • 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:

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)

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
These should be purchased and added to your personal library: 

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

  • Isenberg, Alison
Downtown America
University of Chicago Press, 2004

  • 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’ 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.
Jane Jacobs, 1916 - 2006
Click for a biography of Ray Suarez
Visit the website of Get Urban
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.

The Cities
(Alphabetical Order)

Update:  I've just located another interesting source for information about American Cities (indeed, about cities around the world) which you might want to check out as you consider which to investigate.  Turn Here provides short videos about places.  Those cities with asterisks after them have videos already, but more are added every day.  Don't let these be the only reason for making your choices, but browse around when you're at a loss for something to do.
The reason I’ve selected these particular cities is that there is a unique data source available for all of them that is unavailable for other cities.  I am willing to entertain the suggestion of other cities in which groups might be interested, as long as students realize that certain kinds of things would not be as easily obtained. 
There are twenty-four cities listed, five more than last time I offered the course, and I expect no more than eight 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 7, and I’d like to have the cities chosen by those groups by September 14. I’d like the first groups to present by the first week of November.  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 20 to 30 minutes or so, so we’ll be able to do two a week, sometimes three, as necessary.
Evaluation and Grading:

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, 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.
This logo links to Turn Here.  I'll be adding other useful and interesting wesites as I come across them.